Holding Spaceby Jen George
Sean Dorsey Dance | The Missing Generation
Joyce Theater | JUNE 20 – 23, 2018
Each June, New York City observes Pride Month by celebrating and commemorating the LGBTQ community with vibrant events and exhibitions of all kinds. This year, among innumerable festivities, New York Live Arts facilitates “The House Party,” part of a multi-faceted celebration and remembrance of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company Co-founder Arnie Zane. Artist Zoe Leonard displays her work Strange Fruit at the Whitney, and discusses its themes of mortality and discrimination with the Brooklyn Rail. The annual Pride March floods 5th Avenue, and traditionally devotes a moment of silence to members of the community lost to AIDs and discrimination. The Joyce Theater provides a week of queer programming with performances from both Madboots Dance and Sean Dorsey Dance.
Just as the Pride March creates a moment of reverence for victims of the AIDS crisis, Sean Dorsey’s work, The Missing Generation, offers the same for its long-term survivors. Dorsey is heralded as the first acclaimed transgender modern dance choreographer in the U.S., and his works traverse the complicated landscapes of gender and queerness, particularly covering ground within the terrain of masculinity. Dorsey dedicated more than two years developing Generation, beginning by interviewing twenty-five survivors in six cities about their experiences during the health epidemic. Dorsey and team then spent several hundred hours editing the recorded interviews and integrating them into a complex soundscore. We receive the fruits of their efforts in an emotionally rich performance, melding dance with the aforementioned interviews, pre-recorded audio of Dorsey himself, original music (composed by Jesse Olsen Bay, Alex Kelly, Ben Kessler, and Jeffrey Alphonsus Mooney), and live interjections from the four in-person performers. While Dorsey emphasizes the transgender voice and experience in his work, a viewer is still reminded of Bill T. Jones’s work Still/Here, which was developed from documented “Survival Workshops,” and prompted both awareness and controversy in the early 1990s.
The stage itself is dark for most of Generation, but mitigated by spotlights of varying shapes and sizes. Black costumes blend with the darkness of the stage, drawing focus to the dancers’ exposed arms and faces. The cast (Brian Fisher, ArVejon Jones, and Nol Simonse alongside Dorsey) is multi-generational, and each embodies a prescribed role on stage. Even during interludes where the cast moves in unison, Dorsey reads as the ringmaster; his gestures are expansive and suggest that he is shepherding the other dancers. Fisher appears to represent the generation under discussion, as he delivers several emotional monologues throughout the performance. Jones and Simonse seem less defined as individual characters, but work well together in duets throughout the show.
The Missing Generation offers us snippets of recorded interviews that chronicle the story of the LGBTQ “Great Rainbow Migration” to San Francisco and other cities, through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and through its aftermath, to the present-day survivors. The performance welcomes us with a single, spot-lit solo, and grows in complexity and emotional range, until an entire history of loss and grief takes shape before us. The nature of the crisis is not immediately named, mirroring the unknown quality of the health epidemic during its peak. Dorsey's own voice frames the survivors’ stories, but does not overshadow them. Dance solos correspond with the spoken vignettes, and we see new choreographic sequences introduced for each new voice. One sequence calls to mind the polyrhythmic groundedness of African dance, while another nods to classical ballet with échappés and leisurely off-kilter fouettés. Sometimes, dance takes a back seat to the survivors’ stories; one audio segment plays over an entirely dark, empty stage.
Dorsey’s choreography imbues masculinity with warmth and softness. Movements rise and fall vertically, breath-like, and the arm movements seem thoughtful. The moments of stillness interspersed with these movements are sudden, as if the dancer’s arm or leg were caught and held by something invisible. The frequent unison is not the crisp precision of a Broadway show. It's more the soft coordination of a plant’s fronds moving underwater, directed by the current. The lines of leg and foot are pure when we see them, especially on Fisher. Repeated movements of pliés in second position form a prayer, with palms pressed and chastely bisecting the body. Low bounces in parallel mimic a heartbeat. The members of the quartet sometimes curl over each other’s shoulders, in a stylized group embrace. A group circling movement, where the dancers duck under their intertwined arms, recalls Matisse’s painting Dance (1), though a variation on this concept later in the piece more closely evokes the iconic choreography of Swan Lake’s “Danse des petits cygnes.”
Dorsey is often praised for the partnered choreography in his work, and it does feel unique, perhaps more in the approach than the actual steps. Partners engage as if wafting their appendages around one another; gripping and weight-sharing appears as a byproduct or afterthought. The dancers do execute some more purposeful vertical lifts as a group, hoisting Fisher in the air like the physical embodiment of signal-boosting.
Despite the inarguably heavy subject matter of The Missing Generation, there is humor, here, too. The dancers speak boldly from the stage, delivering double entendres and skewering some of the new-found queer lexicon. Sexy choreography depicting hook-up culture and club life provides some heat as well, lightening the rest of the content.
Sean Dorsey’s The Missing Generation is a study in balanced pairs: voice and music, movement and stillness, spotlight and darkness, those who were lost and those who remain. The performance ends in a quartet, holding space for a community full of stories.
JEN GEORGE writes out of New York City.