I was a junior in high school when I had my first serious crush on a girl. I’m talking sleepless nights and a painful number of halfway-conversations-turned-awkward-interactions in which I exhibited the social skills of a turtle released from a lifetime of solitary confinement into a nation of Olympic sprinters. She definitely knew I existed, and may even have had a net positive impression of me (I like to at least entertain the possibility), but I would be shocked if she had even an inkling of how I felt. I tried my hardest to never let on the nature of my feelings. Instead, I collected every breath caught, heartbeat skipped, and drop of palm sweat shed as silent data points in my growing bank of evidence that I may not be altogether “straight."
Evidence of my queerness had been accumulating from a young age, mainly in the form of straight leg jeans, turtlenecks, and general enthusiasm for any female with short hair. But despite my mounting list of evidence, I was not yet ready to call myself “queer” because the ramifications of that were far more complicated than my 16-year-old self could support. Being gay was one thing; wading through the swamp of gender identity and expression another altogether. I didn’t yet have the language to understand that the two could be pulled apart, and in the claustrophobic space where they met, I preferred to keep collecting evidence. My closet was a quiet, well-considered field lab.
This brand of deeply thoughtful, near scientific approach to identity formation is not unique. From the outside, it looks a lot like “over-thinking”, and may be easy to write off as a byproduct of the general mental disarray that most of us experience when it comes to sex. But I think the particular brand of queer self-study is worth taking a moment to consider, especially in the context of art-making. What if the murky process of questioning, claiming, and sharing our queer selves with the world was actually one of the greatest skills we had to offer our work?
Chicago-based dance/performance artist Nora Sharp refers to this overall process as coming into selfhood. Last week I had the privilege of sitting down with Sharp (who goes by what she/he/they term “dealer’s choice” pronouns) to talk about her new solo show, “Small Boobs." As Exhibit A in this show preview, I direct your attention to the personal essay above - Sharp has a way of prompting the kind of deep reflection that sneaks up on you while you’re laughing about a joke she made. Our conversation ran the gamut, from queer politics to “emotional wokeness," to pop songs that are deep anyway and childhood memories from the Sharp family dinner table. Most of all, I was captivated by Sharp’s incisive reflections on how her queer identity influences her artistic practice.
After a week of allowing our conversation to refract around the kaleidoscope of my own experiences, the intersections between queerness and artistic practice that Sharp identified have coalesced into three general buckets in my brain: 1) careful noticing, 2) reconciling polarities, and 3) celebrating complication.
1) Careful noticing. Sharp’s dance career started after college with lots of “dance-y group dances about dance." Around the same time, she began creating impromptu solos melding movement, humor, social commentary and the not-infrequent pop song cover. It wasn’t until she began to chafe against the “dance-y dance” mold that she realized her solo performances were more than non sequitur explorations. She began to identify patterns that had unconsciously emerged over almost 10 years, and realized that “there was something bigger in there that wanted to be made.” She decided to make it.
Through a series of residencies, Sharp began to develop a show around the themes of bodies, sex, and selfhood. “I realized that even when I went into the studio with the intention of choreographing a cool phrase, I’d find myself doing goofy shit with clothes. I kept taping my boobs onstage while telling seemingly unrelated stories, or trying to untangle aspects of selfhood vis a vis covering pop songs about relational angst.” “Small Boobs” was born from Sharp’s devoted labor to notice what was already happening.
As she tells this story, I can’t help but think of my own process of coming out. The years devoted to noticing patterns emerge. I ask Nora if the parallel resonates. We agree that “noticing” is both an artistic strategy, and a strategy for coming into selfhood, especially a non-normative selfhood. The connection sends shivers through my spine.
2) Reconciling polarities. “In addition to taking my clothes off and doing these weird karaoke numbers, I kept finding myself telling non sequitur stories,” Sharp tells me of her early solos. “I would get on stage and immediately take on this “host” persona. After it seemed like everyone was good, I’d start the show. It wasn’t until much later that I realized a) this was actually already part of the show, and b) I was essentially becoming a mix of my parents in these moments.”
Sharp paints a picture of family dinners growing up - her dad holding court with funny stories at the table while her mom grabbed one last thing from the oven; her mom prompting a deeply intellectual discussion by asking the simplest of questions with a curiosity so genuine it disarms. Onstage, Nora fuses the historically-masculine role of conducting group experience with the skills she developed socialized as female - compassion, empathy, and the ability and inclination to recognize the needs of others. I suggest this sounds like an external expression of her internal reconciliation - bridging binaries such as “male/female”, “gay/straight,” “cis/trans,” “child/adult.” Has the process of navigating internal dissonance become a primary tool for connecting with her audience? This time it’s Nora’s turn to shiver.
3) Celebrating complication. “You’re resistant to generalizations.” By now, I feel confident to state this instead of ask. She nods thoughtfully. “Yes, I guess I like to find the nuances of what’s really going on.” Unbidden, the opening line of Avril Lavigne’s song, “Complicated” blares through my auditory brain (Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?). From my current vantage point, it sounds less like an accusation than a covert expression of gratitude - while complication may baffle, it also offers space for messiness, to see things that feigned-simplicity obscures. As if she can see the song written in my eyes, Nora smiles. “I know people have a complex experience of reality,” she says. “I want to honor that...I hope that by showing pieces of myself, I offer moments of resonance and the opportunity for others to do the same.”
Something has opened in a treasure chest inside my ribs around what it means to be a queer person making art - to not only recognize and accept it as part of my identity, but to celebrate it as a source of great power and intelligence in the realm of my artistic practice. Our identities not only offer content for our work, but provide us with skills and perspective to bring that content to life in utterly unique ways.
It’s not easy to make a show directly related to life wounds. To remain faithful to their complexity and depth of emotion without throwing salt on them is an ongoing practice, Sharp says. But navigating all of this has been one of the most rewarding aspects of creating the show - “Small Boobs” is not just about selfhood, it is an ongoing practice in coming into selfhood. I, for one, feel incredibly grateful to Nora Sharp for sharing the practice with us.
“Small Boobs” runs Friday and Saturday, November 9 and 10 at 8pm at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Tickets are available online and at the door. I hope to see you there.