June 4, 2009

Scott Wells & Dancers, Men Want To Dance

What Men Want
Scott Wells & Dancers
May 31, 2009
Part of the 2009 SF International Arts Festival
CounterPULSE, SF

Scott Wells makes wonderful dances for men and women and sometimes he makes wonderful dances for men. Wells treats modern dance like a sport in a postmodern fusion of relaxed lyrical dancing, physical comedy, and surprisingly tender partner acrobatics. The leaps, catches, cat like landings and spiraling falls to the floor reveal the company’s roots in the dance known as contact improvisation. What Men Want was a suite of four premieres, including two big works for an ensemble of eight men. In this meandering writing, I don’t review each piece. I’m exploring a few ideas, mostly about men dancing.

Wells’ work for men charms with a playful engagement of masculine clich├ęs, anxieties and interventions. The work is so unabashedly straight, as in heterosexual, that it’s almost queer. I mean that Wells and his guys, regardless of their personal identities and affections, come across as straight dudes whose physical intimacy most often recalls the homosociality (aka male bonding) of a compulsively hetero locker room. At other moments of sensitive dancing and careful touch the choreography dares to intervene on hetero norms. We don’t expect sporty dudes to roll together quite so slowly. It’s queer in it’s intentional questioning of masculine performance. If there’s a weakness to this expansive view of hetero masculinity it’s the way that Wells’ choreography responds to nearly every gentle moment with a kind of defensive reaction of physical comedy, martial arts jokes, or just vigorous muscular activity. The choreographic rhythm is like a pendulum that inscribes a binary code, swinging from masculine to feminine, gentle to vigorous, sensitive to hilarious. This binary insistence is decidedly not-queer. The only device I contest is the ubiquitous ‘gay joke.’ There are a million variations - in dance, television, sports, Hollywood, advertising – in which two or more guys suddenly become aware of how intimate they’ve become, and the energy shifts, and the audience laughs. And that laugh, for queer boys, is too often a cruel laugh.

K. Ruby was a dance student and choreographer at Berkeley High 30 years ago. Recently, she told Linda Carr, the current head of Berkeley High’s dance program, how times had changed. With the addition of hiphop to the dance curriculum, it seemed to Ruby that more boys were dancing. She recalled that classes in the late 70s were predominantly female except for the occasional gay or soon-to-be-gay male. Carr pointed out that, sadly, today’s gender demographics were consistent with Ruby’s experience. And that’s the news in a town noted for its liberal and radical social politics, in a Bay Area known worldwide as a place for queer challenges to normative behavior. How much does gay anxiety and homophobia influence our dance cultures? Why is it so unusual for men to dance together in this culture we might call contemporary or post-European or even post-colonial? In Ballet, Modern dance, and the styles that follow, females are probably 80% of the practitioners, many in training since the age of four or five. Males start dancing later, take fewer classes, have significantly less competition for professional opportunities and consistently get more attention and resources. Despite the male dance superstars from Nijinsky to the Nicholas brothers, from Gene Kelly to Baryshnikov, and from Jose Limon to Savion Glover, dance – in the American popular imagination - continues to be gendered female, or feminine. Try to consider this while simultaneously and paradoxically noting that the most viewed YouTube video (100 million + hits) is a comic dance by Jud Laipley called The Evolution of Dance, AND the top prize for the past two years of Britain’s Got Talent was won by male dancers, who received millions of votes and even more YouTube hits. Diversity, a multi-racial, age diverse, all-male dance company, won this year’s prize and the 2008 winner was a 14 year old named George Sampson who performed a hiphop remix of Kelly’s Singing in the Rain. European and American boys and men are dancing but they’re still not taking modern dance classes in any great numbers. Scott Wells & Dancers operates within this larger social context of homophobic masculinity, gendered dance expectations, and special attention for dancing boys.

The two jewels of this oddly named evening of dancing were the smaller more formal works, Catch, a duet for two dancing jugglers, and Bach solo trio, danced by a solo woman and a trio of guys. I think I like Catch because of the lack of comedy. The duet connection between Aaron Jessup and Zack Bernstein (of Capacitor) was super sweet. All dance duets are about love, but some are less romantic than others. In this pas de deux with objects, the love was a shared loved. If I could call it Whitmanesque and not evoke sex, I’d call it the (chaste) love of comrades. They danced on and around each other’s bodies, always a red ball in hand, or traveling between them. As the work progressed, virtuosic ball tossing alternated with swirling lifts and spiral rolls over backs. Sometimes there was one red ball between them, but towards the end they each juggled five balls simultaneously, beginning and ending in perfect synch. Impressive. The dance ended the way it began, roles reversed, one man a landscape of body lying in a circle of light and the other walking the perimeter.

Bach solo trio opened with a short solo by Rosemary Hannon. Hannon (recently seen dancing with Non Fiction at The Garage) repeated a short phrase focused on the arms and torso. Hannon is tall, lean and articulate, a hyper-aware dancer whose long arms unfold in delicious detail to the ends of her fingers. Dancing in silence, her breath had a resonant presence. As she exited, the Bach began, and the men, Andrew Ward, Sebastian Grubb, and Cameron Growden, entered. As they repeated the same phrase as Hannon, I looked for difference and tried to determine which details were because of gender and which were due to the particularities of these bodies. The men were each and all more compact and dense than Hannon. They didn’t have the openness of shoulder flexibility nor the articulate detail in their fingers. Unlike Hannon, they hadn’t been taking dance class since early childhood. The openness and breath in their chests felt like a distant reminder of Hannon. The men really came to life in the curvy tumbling and floating handstands. There was a section of low spinning into and up from the ground, weight on and off of hands, that recalled the Brazilian dance/fight form capoiera. When they spun on one leg and dove to the floor I recognized the influence of Wells’ body or the Scott Wells that I remember from ten or fifteen years ago. Grubb especially reminded me of Wells’ unique style. The trio section ended with a marvelous thrill of lifts and tumbles, every landing unexpectedly quiet, like cats. Hannon returned, with arms and fingers so alive, her curly mane extending every action of head and spine, and somehow it was her female-ness in response to the trio’s male-ness that filled the space, and took this piece home.

The eight men in the ensemble make a delightful team. In addition to the five men previously mentioned, there is Rajendra Serber, Cason MacBride, and Ryder Darcy. The guys are generous with each other, authentically affectionate, and trustworthy in their attention and precision. Their joy of dancing is infectious and they love to entertain. Wells’ and his dancers are not hesitant to put on a show, to perform tricks, to make us ooh and ahh for a spectacular overhead lift and laugh with an unexpected yet intentional collision. Although they perform some synchronized movement, Wells’ laid-back choreography never enforces conformity. Some dancers shine more than others, but that is more an indicator of accumulated experience than of a lack of necessary talent. A fab flurry of athletic dancing closes the evening. Darcy runs up a wall and flips head over heels. Others run sideways to the wall and propel themselves into dive rolls onto a well-placed mat. Growden is a superb jumper with a loft to rival any high jumper. When he dives horizontally at the brick wall, two other men arrive to pin him, freezing the moment in time. Wells plays often with this kind of sustained time, floating bodies, pausing handstands, and full-body catches that linger, not so much frozen as floating, and then when released the falling weight becomes the momentum that drives the dance onward.

(A few months later I deleted a little joke of a line at the end that seemed to color the previous writing too much. There are comments by two of the men in the cast and another local choreographer - going further with questions of queer, masculinity, dance.)

June 1, 2009

Joah Lowe, my first SF dance teacher

In 2004 David Gere asked me to write a short piece about a dancer who had died of AIDS for his book release celebration. Gere, who came of age as a dance critic at the height of the AIDS epidemic, wrote How To Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS, the first book to examine the interplay of AIDS and choreography in the United States, specifically in relation to gay men. I can't brag too much about the book because I'm lucky to be featured in it, but the writing is lovely and the research is generous and precise.

I decided to write about my first teacher in San Francisco, Joah Lowe. I'm including this 2004 writing about a teacher I worked with in 1982-83 for two reasons. 1) I like the writing. 2) This year when teaching a Queer Performance class at USF I heard from several students that they really weren't aware of how intensely AIDS had impacted gay life and culture. In honor of our ancestors, let's keep remembering.

Letter for Joah Lowe

Dear listener, dear living dancer, dear dead dancer, dear Joah Lowe:

To write a love letter is to willingly open memory’s door. To invite the images and sensations of yesterday to obliterate the distractions of today. But once the door is open everyone comes rushing through. There are so many half-told stories, half-choreographed dances. I’m writing for Joah but I want to write for everyone. For Tracy Rhodes and Peter Kadyk, for Ed Mock and Jim Tyler, for Wayne Corbitt and Arnie Zane, and for all the guys whose names I can’t remember: the one who came to all my sex healing rituals for queer men, the one who gently confronted our Body Electric retreat about our fear of dying, the bedridden one whose voice was barely a whisper yet requested that I come and sing with him at the Hartford St. Zen Hospice.

I’m afraid to write to you. Your presence has become a complicated pattern in a fabric I wear like skin. I hesitate to unravel you individually for fear of my own unraveling. Who am I without you, here, now?

I remember dance class with Joah Lowe, over 20 years ago, in a studio (in this building) at 8th & Folsom. Joah was my first teacher in San Francisco. All the basics that would become Release and Releasing, he shared with us a decade earlier under the names of Aston Patterning, developmental movement, improvisation and whether or not he ever studied with Halprin or Laban, he taught us their rituals as well. Every good dance teacher transcends technique, copywrite, and culture. I’ve been lucky to be in the zone of the one dance, the prayer dance, the now dance, and Joah took me there. He wasn’t the first or the last but because of it he’s unforgettable, indivisible from my story, my dance.

Joah taught a weekly class, an introduction to contemporary dance that involved technique and improvisation. Open to beginners, his class gave me knowledge and confidence to graduate to Lucas Hoving’s Mon-Wed-Fri technique classes, where I folded myself into dance history for the next three years following Lucas from Margie Jenkin’s studio at 15th & Mission, to Footwork (aka Dancers’ Group now Abada Capoeira), the Women’s Building and Third Wave (now Dance Mission). I can’t remember if Joah sent me to Lucas or Lucas sent me to Joah. I’m sure it’s written in some journal that I’ll never read again. I only remember that I refused to study technique with anyone that didn’t also teach improvisation and that’s how I chose them as teachers.

I remember Joah in Lucas’ class and I remember Joah performing but these memories are cloudy, distant. I remember hanging off the ballet bar, learning to maximize the tilt in my pelvis. I remember Joah’s hands on my hips and only later, years later, did I recognize this memory as sexual. Years later when I really learned to fuck, to release into being fucked, I knew what I had learned from Joah. I’ve thought about Joah and those pelvic rolls and tilts a million times, while warming up, studying Pilates or Klein technique, masturbating, fucking, even riding a bike or hanging below freeways, yelling to god (Saliva 88-89, Spell 04)

I remember asking Joah about his own history in dance. All I remember is an injury and some kind of betrayal, I think with Graham technique. I was a wannabe revolutionary pacifist anarchist feminist then and assumed that all orthodoxy caused pain so this out-of-context image became another brick for me to throw at the glass house of Dance. Now I’m one of those who occupy that house, only part-time. I show up to do repairs; to work on additions to the house so more folks can visit. There’s always work to do.

I hope Joah is proud of me. He’s the kind of ancestor from whom I want praise and recognition. I know it’s supposed to go the other way, so I hope that this letter fulfills some of the debt I owe. Joah, thanks a lot. Thanks for welcoming me, for steering me into the future and away from the past. Thanks for paying just enough attention to me, which was not much, because I was not yet ready to be seen, to be revealed, even to myself. Maybe you knew that but probably you just sensed it. You were my first authentically intuitive man. The more I write this the more your body comes to mind, to body. I’m seeing your legs now. They’re very strong. I could go on, but I’m getting nervous, now that your body has caught up to memory and all this presence, yours and mine, is alive, here, now. Thanks again. I bow to you.

With love, Keith

Just before printing this letter, I had a twinge of insecurity. Do I really remember? So I googled you. Yes I googled an ancestor. And there you were, noted teacher of Lessons in the Art of Flying, releasing your signature bowling ball to the sky, in a piece called Bowling Lesson #1 – Letting Go of the Ball.
Dance. Lesson. Memory. Body. Letting Go. Love. Thanks.

Joah Lowe in his Bowling Lesson #1—Letting Go of the Ball (1984).
Photo by Christine Uomini, courtesy David Gere, lifted from the awesome site The Estate Project. Check it out here: