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.)


Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos Jr. said...

Thanks, for articulating the "playful engagement of masculine cliches, anxieties and interventions" in Scott's show. I've been trying to explain this to some people, but your criticism was much more elegant in that it validates and appreciates while still making the critical point.

I left the show feeling challenged by the last piece...as if I was excluded or something and was unable to respond because they were all able to do amazing tricks to keep me quiet (or to keep me distracted by my own ooh and aah reactions). It reminded me of feelings growing up of failing to feel/act/think/be like a "regular guy/bro/dude/boy." And yes, the pendulum swing from tender and possibly homoerotic to boy roughhousing, swordfighting and tumbling is a great metaphor.

You closed with brief mention of wanting the underwear to have happened earlier. I noticed that as soon as the clothes came off and before I could project anything onto this statement/image, they immediately began the big acrobatics--taking over the space leaving no room to think of the different meanings/emotions/statements a bunch of guys in their underwear could mean. It was as if the stunts allowed them to undress together yet definitely still be validated as straight men--the stunts exploding immediately after seemed to stamp them as undeniably Not Queer.

The closing/fading image of the pack of sweaty, almost-naked men converging in towards each other felt ambiguously sexual and combative (as opposed to tender or something else). If some of this ambiguity was sexual then I feel teased, slightly mocked and disappointed because the entire piece always veered directly away from sex and GAY--now at the end do they bring it up and not explore it.

I left the show asking myself, “am I trying to force a queer perspective or my own queer interests (for exploration of certain themes) on this work? Maybe the explorations of this piece weren’t meant for me. I’m sure some of the work that I do regarding masculinity and "what men want" might alienate a straight male audience.” However, because I was left wanting so much for a queer exploration/sensibility to be acknowledged (since the possibility for its exploration seemed always present but never touched), the small gesture of ambiguity at the end felt inadequate and underdeveloped. (It's not that they have to be/act queer at all, but the lack of any recognition/awareness of this element felt awkward)

Those are some reactions to the piece and to your review. I should say that I did enjoy many things about the show such as the care I felt the dancers had for each other, the graceful flying, etc; however, here I'm just reacting to these specific aspects of dealing with masculinity in performance.



Cason said...

Men dancing... some thoughts and experiences.

I was attending a powwow in Davis California and I had passed out a few flyers for the Scott Wells & Dancers show entitled: "What men Want." The flyer depicts a few of the dancers in the show in underwear doing some of their wall acrobatics over Scott - the flyers were handed back to me. The folks at the powwow interpreted the title and the scantily clad men as a show that wasn't for men; namely homoerotic.


I'm finding it hard to respond to the above notes for they seem to create a homo-exclusive conversation as means to discuss a piece that "supposedly" excluded them as audience members. Not being homosexual I don't view the piece through a lens that would necessitate a homosexual or even a homoerotic reading of the piece. Thus, I feel this may discredit my opinion in some eyes and my babblings might be all for naught. However, I do want to point out an injustice in requiring a dance piece of 8 men to delve into the intricacies of queer culture. Especially, if it is uncertain whether the majority of the men in the piece identify as queer or not. Well, uncertain for those not asking the question it seems; if we go with the definition of “straight” or not-queer from the above responses (“sporty dudes”, “boy roughhousing, swordfighting and tumbling”, “the stunts”) then everyone in the piece is definitely straight.

I believe that 8 men on stage (underwear clad or not) necessitating a queer perspective generates the same alienating mentality that keeps “straight” men out of classes that teach the more Western derived dance forms (jazz, ballet, modern) and even out of classes that teach what we now term: the “fine” arts. That somehow because these men are in the arts, and they are “dancing” they should inevitably be dealing with queer issues. I think this mentality disallows men to express whatever it is the want to express and create whatever it is they need to create.

So, I call to question what I'm terming as the interdiction of the homosexual audience member in that the alienation from the piece comes from atavistic personal experiences with what the above responses are sculpting as masculine. (masculine in some reason being in counterpoint to queer).

What I do not want to devalue is a personal experience while viewing the piece.
I believe the question: “Why do men respond to certain forms of touch and interactions with concomitant stunts and awkward comments or jokes?” is a great one to ask about the piece. Not seeing it as a jab or a devaluation the homosexual experience, but that somehow even today we haven't been able to create a space for sexual cross-culturalism.

Meaning, in an age where people are acknowledging school systems as progressing towards a feminine style of education (processual vs production based), we see anything in favor of a non-queer perspective as anti-queer. Shouldn't we be able to discuss both sides of the coin without negating the other? Can we depict men crying, fighting, feeling awkward, doing great stunts and first see them as men and not straight men or men who oppress or exclude?

Cason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cason said...

First Nations Powwow dancing:
Women's Fancy Shawl
Men's Fancy Bustle

I post to address the topic of men in dance classes. I was recently asked if there were qualities in ballet and hip-hop that pointed to these forms as male or female. And I related the difference to my knowledge of First Nations men and women powwow dance styles. The basic step in powwow is 1-2 on the left and 1-2 on the right. However, the approach or style is different for men and women. Women step with their foot down and move their body upwards on the one giving a more flighty up-Up-UP aesthetic and men step down and allow their body to follow down on the 1. You may be able to see the difference in the above videos. The women look more akin to butterflies floating and the men are literally down and dirty. And for me (with 12 years of men's powwow dancing under my belt) I find flighty up rhythms in ballet class difficult. I'm not a good balletic jumper. However, I pick up hip-hop choreography fairly easy. And I attribute this to the similarity in rhythm hip-hop shares with the men's powwow styles. There's a hard, down, and aggressive expressiveness in men's powwow and in hip-hop whereas women's powwow styles and ballet (for me) carry a feeling of elevation with the down. The elevation with the down giving the more “feminine” aesthetic which may not be as cathartic for men with a more aggressive expressive tendency.

One could also draw a relationship between the hard/ smooth aesthetic of martial arts and that of hip-hop (and powwow for that matter) as it relates to this idea of male interest in artistic disciplines.

ryder said...

I really enjoyed reading the comments and reviews, so thank you to everyone for posting. I found the critical discussion of sexual nature of the last piece "call of the wild" particularly interesting.

I must preface this comment by saying that, as a dancer participating, I was unable to view the whole picture from outside like the reviewer, but I can talk about how I felt from the inside.

It is undeniable that the piece entered a sexual realm, yet at first I was inclined to disagree with the reviewers criticisms simply because they were not 100% positive. However, after swallowing my pride and reviewing my own feelings I better understand the slight dis-satisfaction with the end. (spoke of by Jorge in the first comment)

I also feel like the clothes could have come off earlier and we could have explored more about what that whole 'getting naked thing' really meant. However, i also really appreciated the ambiguity of the end in terms of sexuality. In the ending I was totally unsure weather we were all converging on one an other naked to fight or be lovers. To me, the ending was decidedly masculine yet un-gendered in that it felt neither homo nor heterosexual. I even felt some connection to a less modern, more Ancient Greek interpretation of homosexuality, where in being homosexual was seen as the most masculine a man could be.

aside: the most elite fighting force in all Greece for a time was the Sacred Band of Thebes, which was made up of 150 homosexual couples fighting side by side. It was believed that because they were homosexual they were more manly and would fight better side by side as they competed for glory and attention among each other. the rough transition from tender to violent in "call of the wild" reminded me of this group of fighting lovers.

Are we assumed to be straight just because we dance like men and do acrobatics and karate? For me the piece wasn't about being queer or straight. It was about being a boy. Loving and fighting and feeling and joking like a man, and there are all kinds of men. Some joke around and "bro out" and some sleep together. I didn't feel like the piece attempted to pass judgment on any one choice, but rather just to express what it is to be a man.

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