Queer Dance: Performing the Capacity to Desire Differentlyby Charmian Wells
The term “queer” holds many meanings as a word that has been reclaimed, repurposed, and refashioned. Through collective use, the term has been transformed from a slur, “an assault on the capacity for normative subjectivity,” into an “announcement of the capacity to desire differently.”1 Repurposing queer, in the service of new meanings and different desires, is an effort to shift the terms for what constitutes a desirable life, multiplying ways of desiring to be (together) in the world, through collective imagining and enactments.
Performative strategies of transformation make up a thread that runs through Clare Croft’s ambitious Queer Dance project. Croft is the curator of EXPLODE! Queer Dance Festival, which ran June 22–24, 2017 at JACK performance space (within a larger series beginning in 2015); the editor of the recently published anthology Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings (2017); and the visionary of the Queer Dance website, which includes performance footage and interviews with the artists (and is accessible on the OUP website with a username/password from the book). Croft’s immense “backstage” labor in coordinating this coalition of artist-thinkers is remarkable.
The anthology reorients the work of queer dance studies by: centering coalitional politics, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and female identified contributions; disrupting the gender binary; decentering Western ideologies; and attending equally to social and concert dance. EXPLODE! embodies these reorientations, practicing transformation by performing the capacity to desire differently across two evenings of dance, which carried distinct energies within and between them.
On the nights I attended (June 22–23), the offerings ranged from Michael Parmelee and Anthony Alterio’s campy boi do(et) to Anna Martine Whitehead’s selections, a complex meditation on black queer visibility and opacity. Peter Carpenter’s solo, Last Cowboy Standing, queerly appropriated a Ronald Reagan speech on everyday heroism into a popping sound that became finger guns aimed randomly at audience members, radically shifting the intended meaning of those words in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Gu Jiani’s severe duet, Right & Left, presented a sharp contrast to Nic Gareiss and Cleek Schrey’s Lafferty’s, an intimate sonic conversation between dancer and fiddle, which excavated and refashioned traditional modes of Irish step dance for their queer possibilities. Thomas DeFrantz’s theory-ography 4.5 continuously short-circuited expectations. Moving abruptly between performance modes—audience participation, provocative academic travelogue, video projection—he insisted on attending to blackness and queerness in the here-and-now. Jennifer Monson and DD Dorvillier’s duet created a temporal hinge between the past—the set choreography of their 1994 RMW, grounded in histories of artistry and activism—and the present moment of performance—their improvisatory RMW, an erotic becoming of queer desire. Finally, the Post Natyam Collective’s rapture/rupture posed questions around the desire to please one’s teacher in the im/possibility of “properly” inhabiting a dance form. These distinct approaches to “queer dance” were woven together by our Mistress of Ceremonies, drag queen LaWhore Vagistan.
As she pranced into the performance space, the lights glinted off LaWhore’s dangling earrings, rhinestone stilettos, platinum wig, and bejeweled pink sari. Her opening performance, Sorry/Sari, refashioned Justin Bieber’s popular song to reference her sparkling “desi-style, Aunty” accouterments. She deployed double meanings in both her cunn(t)ing use of the song lyrics and her name (LaWhore is both “Lahore, Pakistan and with the W, so you know I’m for sale”). LaWhore’s appropriation of A Whole New World, set to thumping house beats, constituted a queer post-colonial remixing, and camp repurposing, of Disney’s Orientalist heteronormativity. She enacted Princess Jasmine’s initial excursion into the world of fisting. Aladdin’s lyric in this new context—“Don’t you dare close your eyes!”—got laughs on both nights. I experienced an intimate moment of exchange when she dropped her blue glove, smeared with foundation, in my lap at the end of the performance. The feeling in the audience seemed to actualize the desire described by the Post Natyam Collective in their contribution to the anthology: “the work’s queer potential lies in its hope that it may move and be witnessed by ‘forward dawning’ rasikas, or ideal sympathetic spectators.”
The queer frame of the evening highlighted my own spectator role in making meaning, offering an invitation to suspend certain visual modes of knowing in the service of seeing, hearing, and feeling what else might emerge. As a “sympathetic spectator,” I experienced two striking moments, described by Croft as the “pedagogical power of dance to see gender anew.” In one, I found a performer’s gender undeterminable. In the other, I assumed the dancer’s gender and immediately afterwards found myself questioning what I thought I knew. What was so generative about these moments was how they surfaced my own desire to know—Why did I need to know? And what would I then “know” about the performer? What presumptions and assumptions lay beneath that visual identification?
Post Natyam’s performance of rapture/rupture, also challenged the audience to suspend assumptions about the gender binary through Cynthia Ling Lee’s refashioning of abhinaya, an expressive technique in classical Indian kathak. By mixing its gendered performance codes on her dancing body, Lee both inhabited the convention of addressing an imagined beloved, and simultaneously threw into question conventional assumptions that the imagined beloved is of the “opposite” gender. In Croft’s anthology, Hannah Kosstrin’s beautiful historiography “Queer Spaces in Anna Sokolow’s Rooms” also places pressure on assumptions of address to an “opposite” gender in modern dance spectatorship. When a female soloist touches herself in grief-stricken, longing and despair, why is it assumed that she longs for a man?
Post Natyam’s use of abhinaya deliberately eschews Western compositional methods and a postmodern dance “blank face” aesthetic. Emily Wilcox’s essay on Gu Jiani’s choreography Right & Left also decenters a Western frame of reference. Through her queer reading, Wilcox explains how Jiani references and remixes conventional female roles in contemporary Chinese dance (in which women only relate to each other through competition). In Right & Left, one dancer is seated, while the other stands behind her, violently tossing her head back and forth and manipulating the flesh of her face. Like a rag doll, the seated dancer flops into deep backbends, before being thrust upright. Her eyes remain forward as the sounds of being manipulated—grunting, gasping, choking—puncture the soundscape of spare piano chords. My impression was that the piece was about internal repression. A friend asked if I thought it was an S&M duet. Rather than missing the “real” meaning of the piece, until I read Wilcox’s chapter, Croft suggests that this proliferation of meanings is a productive intersection of queer and dance—their elusive resistance to being pinned to a singular significance. This slipperiness enables queer repurposing, insisting on multiplicity rather than a proper meaning or “one (correct) way to live.”
Croft’s introduction to the anthology simultaneously defines clear political positions and what is at stake for queer dance, while resisting a fixed definition or clear-cut identity. She is more interested in what queer does (performativity), than what queer is (identity). At times the un/defining of queer dance in the book reads like a manifesto, which seems appropriate given Croft’s grounding of the term(s) in physical histories of political protest. She positions the project in a legacy of activism including the Gay Liberation Front, ACT UP, the Lesbian Avengers, and Queer Nation, while also extending her historical scope to account for the debts of these political movements to black liberation struggles. In an important historical intervention, Croft credits queer resistance to identity (politics) and its coalitional sensibility—bringing diverse identities into provisional, strategic unity—as a repurposing of concepts developed in black feminist thought.2 In this way, the project answers Audre Lorde’s 1985 challenge for reciprocity between racial and sexual politics and Thomas DeFrantz’s 2002 challenge to dance and queer studies: Race is central to Queer Dance.3
The imperative to resist a fixed definition or proper form is reflected in a dazzling range of approaches to writing and knowledge production within the volume. These include artistic manifestos, process-based description, dance historiography, queer ethnography, poetic meditation, as well as cross-pollinations of these modes, and more. The book reveals an ambitious scope of interventions, ranging from queer theory—let’s talk about material, sweating, desiring bodies and their pleasures, rather than metaphorical bodies as a vehicle for theory—to studio practices—stop policing young men’s gender and sexual expression by telling them to “butch it up!” If teaching practices were to enable a range of gendered expressions, what new forms could surface?
Perhaps gender nonconforming students would not have to wait until college to have their experiences affirmed in a gender studies course. LaWhore, a.k.a. Kareem Khubchandani, a Tufts University professor, is explicit in all senses of the word, especially in framing her own position: “I am an academic drag queen.” The evening was peppered by references to postcolonial and queer theorists, including Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Jack Halberstam. I appreciated these jokes, getting the references and laughing along, while I also wondered if they were potentially alienating for people in the audience who did not have an academic background. At other times, you didn’t need an advanced degree to catch LaWhore’s rejection of Orientalism. The message was conveyed quite clearly by the stereotypical “prayer hands” above a side-to-side shifting head, accompanied by her wagging finger—no, no, no. The blending of theoretical and practical knowledge seems to be at once the strength and the challenge of Queer Dance as a coalitional project that seeks to bridge academic, concert, and social dance worlds. In his contribution to the anthology, Thomas DeFrantz acknowledges this tension: “the unmet challenge for queer theory and queer dance might be an opening of access for anyone who wants to think-move queer.” This is no small feat, and Croft’s project both reveals this challenge and establishes a strong foundation to continue grappling with it.
Croft’s objective is not to create a new queer canon of dance, but to experiment with promiscuous mixings and unorthodox juxtapositions. What is queer, she offers, is what happens in-between, what new forms of relation can materialize. This happens in Queer Dance’s formal composition: coalition-through-collage joins diverse approaches to writing and performance. The website, which “expands the archive of queer dance” got me thinking about the possibilities of repurposing this platform. What might happen if it were public and open to upload-able contributions? In this way, the poignant, powerful ideas and bodies in Queer Dance could continue to multiply different ways of desiring to be (together) in the world...
- Fred Moten, “The Breathe and Blur Books.” Jose Muñoz Memorial Lecture. New York University. February 24, 2016.
- The lessons of black feminism revealed that defining a ‘proper’ subject in identity politics (defined historically through the figure of a white woman in feminism and a black man in Black Power) could never be the basis for a liberatory politics, but that coalition politics might. See Gloria T. Hull, et al. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2015; Barbara Smith, Home Girls: a Black Feminist Anthology. Rutgers University Press, 2000; Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, p. 1241-1299. “The Combahee River Collective Statement” http://americanstudies.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Keyword%20Coalition_Readings.pdf;
- Audre Lorde cited in Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. Routledge, 2006, 132. Thomas DeFrantz, “Blacking Queer Dance,” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), 105
Charmian Wells is a doctoral candidate at Temple University, where her research focuses on Black Arts Movement concert dance. This interest stems from her background as a dancer with Forces of Nature Dance Theatre.