Last Saturday I attended “Frolic,” an evening of performances produced as a part of the 4th annual Queering Dance Festival. I’ve shared some of my impressions of the evening below in “snapshot” style—a glimpse of each chapter of the night as I experienced it. At the end, I share a few overarching reflections.
In this piece, I’m exploring the potential value of reflecting back what I saw with less interpretation or commentary than might be offered in a traditional review. I’ve found that the process of writing this way has meant my own experience of reflection and meaning-making has extended much longer than it often does. My impressions from the evening have continued to transform, taking on new edges and forms as they merge with my accumulating daily experiences since. I’m hoping that writing with less commentary may also offer you, as a reader, the opportunity to develop your own alive and second-hand impressions of the works.
This form of writing has also been a way for me to explore one of the thoughts I’ve been mulling over since the event: what does it mean to queer dance? I’ll say more about this at the end. For now, here are a few snapshots from “Frolic”:
Performer Zoe Huey quietly tends to a draping paper creature onstage while the audience take our seats. We burble away like hens at dusk as Zoe considers the hanging paper thing in front of them. They carefully tape another sheet of paper, patterned with cuts fine as a snow-filled sky, to the tented creation.
The Land Acknowledgement.
My name’s Aiano and I am a settler here on Ohlone Land.
QDF Steering Committee member Aiano Nakagawa offers the land acknowledgement like they mean it. Like history is with us still. Like the land holds our memories, and our bodies hold the power to create a different future than we were given.
Give the land back, they end. More than an acknowledgment—it sets the stage for everything that comes next to be read as an expression of justice in action, and of homecoming.
quietly you call me.
The draping paper creature onstage is also a heart with one chamber; a paper nest; a fort made of porous walls. Zoe adds two more pieces of paper, then enters the refuge and starts humming.
Their hands wriggle out from gaps in the paper tent to lay small pink scraps of tissue paper on the stage and pour wooden blocks from a tall silver can. They move the scraps and blocks from place to place with minute intention, eventually adding a collection of tiny animal figurines to sit on top of the blocks in an ever-changing formation. At one point, Zoe sets two animals on top of yellow block chairs that face each other. After a moments’ pause, Zoe scoots the chairs together as if to allow the animals an intimate moment. The entire audience chuckles.
Zoe’s slow movements and meticulous attention to detail evokes for me a sense of childlike wonder. I see world-building in the blocks, and the safety and sacredness of a space of one’s own in the paper tent. Zoe can barely be seen through the snowflake tent—but they share themselves generously through the dreamscape fantasy they materialize through paper, blocks and animals, and their constant stream of gentle humming and nonverbal commentary.
After constructing, destroying, and reconstructing entire worlds with objects, Zoe scoots out from under the paper like a newborn. They reach their entire body along the floor, stretching tall, and then collect themselves back to a small ball with their hands. Over and over.
The piece ends with an upright dance to Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”—Zoe making repeating staccato movements that glint with the edge of a razor sharp intention. Their breath offers a rhythmic counterpulse to the smooth flow of Clapton’s guitar. Then the piece is over. The lights dim and they leave the stage without warning or moral. I am left with the impression of having witnessed the entire arc of a lifetime in just a few short episodes.
Bernard Brown crouches onstage, his back to us, covered by a sheer sheet of fabric. His arms and hands emerge like tentacles or tendrils, back undulating. I see a plant, an insect, a shadow creature.
He stands to walk downstage, still shrouded by gray cloth. My country ‘tis of thee. He sings from his belly as he walks, arms outstretched, hands clenched in fists. Land where my fathers—his body catapults back, as if punched in the gut or shot in the chest. The image shatters into a new form of unsettling, his body bent and pained.
He stands to walk again. Over and over, until—I want a divorce! He gets flung to the floor, then leaps to his feet, throwing off the fabric. His eyes glow, chest heaving.
Music pours forth like a sonic flood of bass. Bernard dances like freedom personified—earth turned flesh. His face is radiant as he swings, scoops, rolls, twists and catapults into virtuosic turns that would leave the most elegant bird breathless. I see joy, transcendence and freedom through movement. I see the rejection of a shroud that no longer serves the celestial body in front of me.
Finally, Bernard begins to sing again. Nothing stops him. Land where my fathers died…Let freedom ring. I hear it like a prayer, like a vision, like a promise. Through his alchemical movement, Bernard redefines the meaning of “freedom”. He reframes, reclaims, renegotiates, and conjures a version of Freedom that he not only has a right to, but that his own luminous Black body radiates.
Janpi Star enters like a celebrity or an embryo—magnetic, with an unmistakable potential for transformation. Their face is wrapped in a tight white cloth that trails behind them like a train. They move on a downstage diagonal, flourishing their arms until they reach the lower left corner of the stage and climb out of their wheelchair. On the ground, they roll over and over, wrapping themselves in the white fabric until they are fully encased.
Then comes the unveiling. They emerge from the cocoon like a star or baby moon, shining with glitter and intricate white makeup in geometric lines across their face. Like a ritual offering, they throw the white fabric back over their heads as the soundscore sends a flock of geese flying overhead. An offering to the spirits and element of air, I think.
A heavy drumline sets in, inviting us to enter a new space. Janpi begins a sequence of virtuosic, highly energetic floorwork that takes them around the space in a pattern like interlocking roses. As they move, they wear a pink and red tutu-like flower of fabric around their body, making me think of the burning power of fire.
The drums end and Janpi removes the pink fabric. They move upstage and dip their fingers in a small vessel of blue paint. The paint pours from their fingertips down their face and neck like holy water—soothing and cleansing. The soundscore changes to a flowing and spacious environment evocative of water. Janpi finishes the dance with an impassioned duet with a blue pile of fabric. Their movements contain all the power and presence of a body made of universal dust. Glitter sprays from their face as they fly around the space.
By the end, the entire audience is cheering and breathless. The unspoken agreement seems to resound: we have just witnessed something holy.
What does it mean to queer dance? Is it an action? An attitude, or way of making or witnessing dance that intentionally visibilizes alternate perspectives and experiences from those traditionally privileged in the field and society at large? An acknowledgment of something that’s already happening when a program is comprised entirely of queer-identifying artists? Something constructed—a product of discourse and group agreement? Something unavoidable—a product of the innate immeasurability of bodies?
Probably all of the above and much more, changing and shifting depending on the context and circumstances. One of the ways I started thinking about the idea of queering dance while writing this reflection was through the lens of acknowledgment and citation. I think Aiano Nakagawa’s land acknowledgment planted the seed for this branch of thought, and then my memory of a few definitions of how sound waves travel layered on top. In short, one aspect of queering dance that came alive for me through seeing this show was the idea that everything in these works was a reflection or “refraction” of an infinite well of source material. In watching each piece, I was witnessing a many-layered process of sources of inspiration and information being filtered through the artistic choices and in-the-moment embodiments of each performer.
This could be said of any dance or art, so for me, the idea of queering comes into play by explicitly acknowledging the existence of this source material and the process of translation. The act of acknowledgement queers certain assumptions or narratives around art-making by redefining the power structure inherent in the narrative of the “originator” artist (who is the sole creator of their work). Instead, we see artists as interpreters of source material (to which we all have access by virtue of being members of a shared world), who create something unique through translating that source material through their own lens of experience and perspective.
Though this read on queering dance didn’t come explicitly from the pieces themselves, by starting the evening with the land acknowledgement, I felt invited to witness each piece as an expression of a shared world in which we all hold stake and agency, and in which we all experience unique positionality. The fact that each of the performers identify as queer also allowed these “refractions” to reflect a slice of experience unique to the experience of being queer. But for me, the “queerest” part of my experience was the invitation to imagine the massive cycle of information and impressions of which these dances were a part, and that this reflection now also joins.
I am grateful to the artists for sharing their work, and to the producers and organizers of QDF for offering the opportunity to reflect on queerness in dance in a new way. I’m already looking forward to next year!
You can also read this piece on dance blog, Life As A Modern Dancer.