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“Lipstick Lumberjacks, Losers and Leapfrogs” offers a tantalizing foray into a queer imagination

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

I arrived at Oakland’s Humanist Hall on Sunday expecting a dance show. Shaunna Vella and Andrew Merrell’s newest work, “Lipstick Lumberjacks, Losers, and Leapfrogs” delivered not just a show, but a party—a queered-up, punked-out deep dive into an aspirational imaginative potential. In the show’s patch-worked world of “theatrical pas de deux” (the show was a collection of old and new duets from the pair’s many years of collaboration), traditional delineations around identity and connection were examined, rejected, and revised.

In describing the show to others, I have found that queer theory offers a useful framework. If “queerness” can be understood as a willingness to see taboos broken down, or a realm in which binaries are no longer relevant, then “Lipstick Lumberjacks, Losers and Leapfrogs” felt like a physical investigation of the act of “queering”. The works ran the gamut: from a manifesto on the radical potential of platonic intimacy (urging us to “use emotionality as a radical tactic against a society which teaches you that emotions are a sign of weakness”); to an absurd and stunningly precise romance between a pair in striped shirts, berets, and glue-on mustaches; a joyful surrender to the physical release of punk rock; a depiction of modern queer love with dialogue so stereotypical and hilarious it was difficult to hear over the laughter; a tortured case of unfulfilled desire; and many more equally absurd, tender, and incise visions. Throughout, I saw a playful, but insistent line of questioning: What range of experience can we make room for? What forms of expression can we honor? How vast, inclusive, and beautiful can this shared life be?

Between the duets, vignette-like transitions threaded the pieces into a roller coaster through a colorful dreamscape. In one transition, a row of Care Bears formed a massage train. In another, performers melted off the stage to soften into tender improvisational duets, each taking a turn to simply witness their partner move with gorgeously attentive attunement. Yet another had the curtains open to reveal a tableau of performers, each sucking a lollipop. The scene pulsed with a fresh and satisfyingly characitured eroticism, both a joke and a husky murmur, hinting at a deep sense of very real desire.

The show beckoned forth the odd, the tender, the desirous, and the downright hilarious with open arms. It invited us all to join in with the humor, and with even more explicit invitations to take care of ourselves and “move at any time if you need to.” In this sense, Merrell and Vella even queered the experience of “audiencing”, throwing out the traditional model of audience as passive observer and inviting us in as participants in the show.

The tone of the show was light, but beneath the humor, I sensed a visceral imperative. This came through most clearly not with the stunning dancing (the performers were stunning), but in spite of it. There was a thread of irony and containment running through much of the movement vocabulary, conveying a subtle tone of disillusionment with dance itself. There was almost a complete absence of traditional virtuosity despite an inarguably virtuosic cast and supremely physically-articulate directors. To me, this expressed a lack of faith in the power of modern dance movement (the show’s primary physical language) to get to the heart of matters so important.

There were moments in the show that I felt were well-served by the more muted movement vocabulary and post-modern eschewal of physical exaggeration. In “Rob and Diane”, a duet choreographed by Merrell with performers Juliana Monin and Jared Wiltse, the more physically-conservative approach to movement supported the piece’s portrayal of what I read to be a traditional Christian couple whose adherence to gender and relationship norms had snuffed their spark and lease on life. “Back Alley Fantasy”, choreographed by Merrell with dancers Sarah Chenoweth and Chinchin Hsu, unfolded with its own brand of virtuosity—a stunningly precise yet understated back-and-forth which lent dynamic breath to this absurdist glue-on mustache fantasy romance. But as the show went on, my glee in the gloriously absurd theatrics became weighed down with a growing hunger for a physical language to match the dexterity of the dancers and the rigor of the imaginative spirit that defined the aesthetic and narrative elements of the work.

The most notable exception of this came for me in “Dear Starlight”, choreographed by Vella with performers Kara Davis and Nol Simonse. The piece began as an accumulation with variation to gentle music. Davis and Simonse cut perpendicular tortured paths with bounded movement, which I read as reckoning or sense-making. Suddenly, a punk rock tune tore through the gentle piano, bringing a diametric change in physicality. Davis and Simonse put on lipstick and let loose with a gleeful, flailing celebration. Their wild abandon was underpinned by a physical intelligence from years of highly technical dance training. The result was at once absurd and exaltingly contagious.

I became curious about the discrepancy in physical range I saw in the dancing, and the range I suspected both directors and cast were capable of—to absolutely tear up the floor and/or battement like nobody’s business. It didn’t feel so much like a lack of faith in all physicality, as a disillusionment with the formalities of modern dance technique. I connected this potential explanation to the show’s shortest piece, a dance film called “Robots Go To The Spa”.

The film showed clips of Vella and Merrell rehearsing in the studio over multiple years. Overlaying their gesture phrases and physical explorations was an audio dialogue between two robots (though the content of the robot’s discussion was inane, the discussion itself was bizarre and unaccountably fascinating). Scrolling subtitles described Vella and Merrell’s process of interrogating their own whiteness in relation to their dance practices. The video was, I felt, elegantly done. Short, concise, and clear, it expressed an impressively nuanced menu of thought in a relatively short amount of time: a conviction that interrogating their whiteness in relation to dance is imperative in dismantling white supremacy; an acknowledgement that although the process of exploring whiteness is critical, doing it within a public performance setting may take up undue space; and a suggestion that dance, and modern dance in particular, is arguably a poor primary mode of communication in conversations on race and whiteness because 1) it is often abstract and indirect, and 2) it is heavily-defined by its origins and continued practice in communities that for the most part center and celebrate whiteness. “That took about 3 minutes,” the subtitles read. And the film ended.

Do the conventions of modern dance need to be left behind in order to create a transformational space within the form? “1/27/11”, the final duet in the show performed by Merrell and Vella, offered a cryptic response. The piece featured classic modern dance choreography to the sound of “Slide”, by Missy Elliott. The song is an anthem for women who defy the patriarchal narrative that they are helpless or incomplete without men, but more broadly, sounds like liberation made audible. Merrell and Vella rocked out to the song in campy 90’s gear with a gusto that suggested this song held real personal significance for them both.

In light of the "Robots" video, and ongoing conversations in the dance community around appropriation and whiteness, I found myself reflecting on the contrast between the Missy Elliott song playing overhead and the relatively bounded modern dance choreography of two white-identifying performers. The piece seemed self-conscious as well as genuinely-felt—ironic and not, as if they were embracing the modern dance vocabulary that was such a deep part of their physical histories, as well as seeking freedom from the constraints that it placed on their physical imagination. More, the piece felt like a fitting culmination to a near hour and a half of investigation into the radical potential of queerness and boundary-blurring.

The only point of tension for me here, was a feeling that in seeking liberation from the physical chains of modern dance and the existential chains of a binary-obsessed culture, they were drawing on the explosive energy of Missy Elliott’s anthem—an energy with its roots in hip-hop, a culture founded on the ongoing fight for liberation of Black and brown people. Does that make it appropriative? If so, does that matter? To me, this circled back to the even larger question so succinctly framed in “Robots Go To The Spa”: in the work of dismantling white supremacy and racism, what is best taken on personally, and what needs to take place in community? For me, this final piece was a beautiful, thought-provoking testament to the larger truth at the heart of “Lipstick Lumberjacks, Losers and Leapfrogs”: that when things truly matter, binaries rarely serve us well.

Throughout the show, the absurd, extreme, and mundane intertwined to create a joyful experience. Through embracing the unorthodox and the queer, Vella, Merrell, and the entire cast touched upon the absolutely human. Scholar-activist Cathy J. Cohen writes: “If there is any truly radical potential to be found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics, it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin.”“Lipstick Lumberjacks, Losers and Leapfrogs” offered a headlong plunge into the radical potential of the imagination. I believe that in doing so, Vella, Merrell, and the entire cast engaged in exactly what Cohen describes— creating a space where transformation could begin or, indeed, was already underway.


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