Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Solo dance performance: once as a girl and once as a boy
Earlier this year, I gave myself some dance goals for 2012. One of them was "Choreo a solo blues routine and perform it in front of actual people."
First weekend in November, in Washington, DC, I was afforded the opportunity to perform a piece* I've been working on since mid-August at Bambloozled, which is put on every year by the fantastic folks at Capitol Blues.
I think it went pretty well:
Spoonful from David Mudre on Vimeo. Dancing and choreography by Christina Austin.
The second half of this performance was at Snowbound Blues in Rochester, NY.
The second time, I'm dressed as a boy. Weird. I won't lie to you, this post is gonna be long.
I had a few reasons for wanting to make a solo routine. The biggest was just to work on my personal quality of movement and expression. On a panel of slider bars indicating my relative strengths as a dancer, those have been weaker than my partnering skills. Making a solo routine was a fantastic way to get myself to actually put in practice time.
At the same time, the deeper down the rabbit hole I go, the more I want to play with the fact that dancing can also be art. So I wanted to do something more conceptual than just "look at my dancing, it's amazing." Also.... I wasn't confident I could pull "Look at my dancing, it's amazing" off.
I wanted to do something that wasn't just "sexy." I kinda feel like that's been done a bunch of times, and by better dancers than me. Furthermore, one of the things that I love about blues dancing is that it enables a broad range of emotional expression. Moreso than lindy, I think. But while lindy's default emotion is "fuck yeah!", what people, including me but especially women, default to most in blues is teh sexay**.
The tipping point on this was probably a solo comp I watched this summer, populated by some of the best in our scene. And I found much of it very uncomfortable to watch. Specifically, the parts where the contestants were all up in each other's personal space in a sexually agressive way. And it was almost all women. Like most other solo blues comps I've seen.
And I pass as a boy alright. So I thought it'd be interesting to play both sides, and do something fucked up or angry and dark.
Most everybody who saw it live "got" the first performance, I reckon. There were catcalls and such at the beginning, which I expected. But even that setup was kind of, well... to trick people. To guilt them? (sexy, sexy... damaged. ewwww.) To make the audience think they were getting what they expected and then not give them that. The room got palpably awkward halfway through, when I 'shot up.' You can't hear it on the video, but I actually heard somebody say "OH" at that spot. Like, "oh, shit." And the applause hung for a second. That second made all the work I put in totally worth it.
The individual feedback I got on the first performance was mostly of the "oh shit" variety. People who found a new meaning in the song (it's kind of about heroin, but not everybody knows that), people who found it challenging and dark. Some people said it was "cool." I don't think anybody came up to me to tell me how much they "enjoyed" it, though.
The second time, for the boy performance, I did succeed in surprising a bunch of people by listing a guy's name on the audience ballot for the showcase comp. "A guy doing a solo piece? How unusual." But what suprised me was the catcalls persisted throughout the performance. Including when I was 'shooting up'. I was kind of shocked by that. The room got mostly silent at the end, when the piece 'breaks', but there was some hollering right up until through the final pose. The applause did not hang.
(The catcalls in the guy performance: is that because people knew I'm not a boy and so they thought the whole performance was a joke? like a gag? Dunno.)
A lot of people came up and sunnily told me that it was great. A number of people who saw both told me they liked it better the second time (more on this later). People seemed less disturbed in general, although I still got a few comments on it being a very "different" kind of piece.
Confounding variables, my reactions, and questions for anybody reading:
Variables that make it hard to talk about people's reactions vis a vis gender (there are a bunch of them)
- the first time was surprising, and a lot of people saw it twice
- I performed it twice, and was way less nervous and keyed up the second time.
- The first time, I was wearing more revealing clothing... but that also has to do with what we EXPECT "feminine" clothing to be. The guy costume does hide some movement by being simply more clothes.
- The audience in DC for the girl performance was *much* closer to me. They could see my face, and I could see theirs.
- The lighting and spaces were very different. The first performance was in a low-ceilinged dance studio, with everyone crowded around and frankly not that much light. (The video was filmed on a much better camera so it's not quite so noticeable on the films.) The second performance was in a restored ballroom, and everyone was quite far from me and spread out very leisurely. The "stage" area in Rochester was probably nearly as big as the entire room I danced in, in DC.
So basically, the first performance was more intimate, which matters a lot for this piece.
I will say that this is a difficult piece to perform. Just as much as it is difficult to watch, I suspect, if not more. It's kind of type II fun. But I did find the experience of making this and performing it very *rewarding.* I got to show people a new perspective on something, and that is kind of the best thing about art.
One person who's opinion on dance I respect very much told me that she thought the second time was better because the male character starts with more strength, which makes it more impactful when it breaks at the end.
I do wonder if people liked the second time better because it was less uncomfortable to watch. Was that because of the differences in setting? Or because I didn't do as good of a job projecting emotion in that character? (I'm not really sure I did the male character justice. That was really difficult.) When I was trying to put the male character together, I felt that he had a lot more anger than the female character, who mostly feels confused and desperate. Does it have something to do with what we (I) expect from men? (not vulnerability) Or how we deal with men's pain? (uncomfortable laughter? skepticism? denial?) Did I pass well enough to elicit authentic reactions?
One final question I was sort of posing- guys, where is your solo blues dancing? But I don't feel now like that's quite as urgent a question as I felt when I put this together. At Bambloozled, Josh Brody and Marc Longhenry put on a brilliant showcase piece with some manly dancing. And at Snowbound, all three places in the solo comp went to men (the finals was just about half and half).
I really would like to hear people's opinions on this. On the confounding variables, on the perception of gender for the two performances, if it SAYS anything to you about how we construct gender in dance. If you'd like to see more performances that explore desire, loss, anger and other not-sexy things. Other thoughts. I invite comment.
Thanks for watching and reading!
EDITED TO ADD- I do want to take one more second and be like "fuck yeah, blues community."
> The organizers of both events knew what was planned a priori. They's seen my routine, they'd seen the costumes. They knew what was up and they were down.
> Nobody gave me shit for this. Zero people. There was exactly a complete lack of hostility to me dressing in guy drag. And we're talking in person, confusing to straight boys and girls alike. I was packing a fake penis. The works. Everybody was pretty universally like "that is an interesting idea." So yeah, rock on, blues kids. I super appreciated the space to try something a little different.
*To be super pedantic, clearly not all of what is in this routine is only blues. There is heavy jazz influence and some contemporary-ish stuff going on in spots.
**Feel like I want to mention at this point that this was not a protest against sexy dancing, which I enjoy, both as performances and sometimes during social dances.