By ANNE BLUETHENTHAL, professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry and artistic director of ABD Productions
Last November, I received a Request For Proposal from a friend curating a queer arts event to be held in January of 2011. Something in the language of the proposal was provocative—something to do with queer as aesthetic or tactic and the irrelevance of identity—I’m not sure. Whatever it was, I was on a tear and wrote something impassioned about the decline of feminism and the ascendance of queer. I said things like:
“…since we started queering our aesthetics in the 60s, have we become part of a post-modern soup in which the movements have proliferated to such an extent that there may be nothing left to queer? Can we articulate a movement that is pro-activist rather than re-activist? Can we create as well as desecrate? What is a queer aesthetic? Let’s avoid the hip, edgy, cool, outrageous, in your face stuff that is becoming easy and comfortable. I love the flamboyant and rapturous as much as the next gal, but am wary of political art that moves from the outside in. I want to wonder out loud if we lost our sensual love of movement and our ability to speak deeply through the semantics of motion. I want to allow love back into the discourse. What if we ask the question, ‘What do we love?’ along with the question ‘What enrages you?’ What if what you love is what enrages you? How do you aestheticize that problem?”
These were rash, immediate thoughts, sent in an email “proposal.” I thought they might be offensive. Instead, I was invited to create a piece for the festival in which I would rant like my email.
I catapulted my dancers and myself into a process of investigation of what the queer aesthetic might be and what this means for young women today—specifically women like my 13-year-old daughter (whose not-so-tender eyes have been lashed and splashed with images of the kind of degradation and sexualization of women our generation never would have stood for—we would have been on the streets protesting and slashing billboards and gathering troupes of women by the thousands and reading lesbian poetry and singing about our little lights.)
I ended up—with the invaluable help of my 20-30-year-old dancers—with a romp through the lyrics of Lady Gaga, into the ancient intervals of Hildegard von Bilgen, through to the androgynous pathos of Antony and the Johnsons, replete with a solo rendition of “Where Have All the Butches Gone?,” garter belts strung with tampons, and elaborate nature decoration with body painting. We had more fun in dance making, more rolling on the floor laughing (rotfl) than I’ve had in years—maybe since I stopped doing musical theatre. We indulged every movement cliché we never dare use ordinarily. Why? Because it served the content we were exploring. Why don’t we usually use them? Exactly. This was great fun, liberating, satisfying. It was like a guilty pleasure I was only allowing now in the protected environment of a specific idea and venue.
One of my dancers protested when we were about to restage it a few months later. She said it wasn’t up to my usual standard of subtlety and complexity, that the movement language was not kind to their bodies (being kind to the body is a core value in my work), that it was appealing to a kind of “lower” sensibility. (She didn’t actually use the word, “lower,” but that’s what she meant.) We worked on the piece, crafting it some more, layering, and working on the physicality so that the dancers could do the outrageous movements without harming themselves. It was still the same rule-breaking piece—you might even say it was, “hip, edgy, cool, outrageous, in your face stuff…flamboyant and rapturous…”
Maybe what I discovered is that the whole “gay aesthetic” which I was critiquing and rebelling against, and the aesthetic of my daughter’s peers that’s so sexy and gritty and raunchy and extravagant, is just hella fun. Maybe the “Gaga” romp succeeded in exactly what I wanted to do (not necessarily what I thought I wanted). It got me inside of the structures I had felt outside of and made me love them. And, having allowed myself to love them, I can hold the whole enterprise with compassion, a much better sense of humor, and an appreciation of the passion and pathos that live inside the most irreverent gesture.
** We choreographers have layers of unspoken rules in our artist brains. Early in our careers—if we had the questionable privilege to be “schooled” in our art form—we learned that certain ways of moving were more suited for the stage than others. I’m not referring to the obvious, like disco moves we were fond of in the 70s or partner dancing of the 50s. It was in some ways more subtle and in other ways more blatant. Movements that appear a bit “too jazzy” would be looked at down the nose. Gestures common in the early modern dance era would receive a patronizing smile. Those were too emotional, too melodramatic. (I think the equivalent problems arise in literary writing when the author deploys vernacular or crosses a line in pointing out the moral flaws of her characters, for example.) In fact, what we were part of was the de-emotionalization and de-stylization of the modern dance era. (This led to a ‘style’ all it’s own but, much like white supremacy, it doesn’t count as a style if it’s the dominant language, it’s just language.) But there is more. We would work for sometimes five hours a day just in technique classes, perfecting the brush of foot on the floor or the angle of the arm as it’s held in 5th position, or the perfect arabesque. It was painstaking, delicious, rigorous, exhilarating work for me as a young dancer – it was all I knew about training. Cut to rehearsal and choreography class. If you so much as crafted a classic porte bras or back attitude in your latest study, you would fail. In other words, we were not allowed to use the material we were immersed in all day when we went to create dances. They had to be utterly original, lacking in overt emotional content, ant-formal, anti-classical, and anti-narrative. There you have our generation of choreographers: steeped in traditional form yet compelled to create themselves anew and continually. Rebels without a visible cause—or with a visible cause that we better not articulate very clearly or dramatically because clear narrative, political content, or emotionality are out.