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