Queer as Folk Dance

Performing Gender in Phnom Penh and on Gay Barricades

That movement is political goes almost without saying: Why else would the Khmer Rouge regime have killed, or banished to stoop labor, more than 90 percent of Cambodia's dance artists in the late '70s? Action, offstage and on, can telegraph information about gender, sexuality, social class, or religion. Now touring North America for the first time since 1990, "Dance: The Spirit of Cambodia" is an elaborate program of classical and folk dances reconstructed in the 20 years since political violence nearly wiped out a thousand-year-old tradition. Presented by the New England Foundation for the Arts, Lisa Booth Management, and the Asia Society, the project glitters with recovered grandeur. On opening night at the Joyce, it enthralled even those bewildered by it. The exotic curves of hands and feet, of torsos and epaulets and headgear, signaled a universe of preternatural calm in the face of unthinkable disruption.

The music, performed by a live orchestra and singers, was as compelling as the movement. Reed instruments and percussion created an aural landscape of unfamiliar sonorities that first evoked bagpipes, then the moan of wind; the linear melodies held my attention during the slowly unfolding dances. For the third piece, Chhayam, the musicians arrived in a procession down the aisle and cavorted as if in a town square, one drummer hoisting his large instrument with his teeth and then balancing it overhead.

In Robam Makarfemale dancers took on male roles; in the excerpt from Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Ramayana) that constituted the second half of the program, male dancers played monkey soldiers or monkey gods, with the human soldiers represented by women. This was all quite matter-of-fact, gender indicated solely by costume—sarong skirts on female figures, knee-length pants on the men. Gods and mortals, animals and humans, dancers and musicians shared the stage. These 42 artists have been through a lot en route to us; we are better for having met them.

Sok Sokhoeun dances Mera, center, in Robam Apsara at the Joyce.
photo: Cary Conover
Sok Sokhoeun dances Mera, center, in Robam Apsara at the Joyce.


In my first weeks as a staffer at The Village Voice nearly nine years ago, I received word of a lesbian dance festival. The prospect threw me; though I knew men in the field were preponderantly gay (I'd frequently attended all-male concerts with queer themes), I'd given next to no thought to the question of which female artists were gay, or whether their sexuality in fact influenced their choreography or performances. Even now, I think, many lesbians are closeted professionally; it's hard enough to get your work produced if you're a woman, let alone one whose art messes with gender roles.

Dancing Desires, a new publication by the Society of Dance History Scholars, is an eye-opener (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95). Subtitled Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage, it's edited by Jane C. Desmond. She's assembled essays by writers in North America, England, France, and Australia, on such subjects as dance in nightclubs, homosexual repression in postmodern male choreography, lesbian performance art, and gender issues surrounding artists like Charlie Chaplin, Loie Fuller, Ted Shawn, Matthew Bourne, and Kiki and Herb. Dancing Desires plumbs the literal meaning of the word straight and its opposites as they manifest themselves in stereotypic physicality.

In addition to applying queer theory to terpsichorean conundrums (notably in Susan Leigh Foster's compelling essay, "Closets Full of Dances: Modern Dance's Performance of Masculinity and Sexuality"), the collection incorporates its own critique: brief responses titled "Reflections and Extensions" that pose interesting questions of their own, e.g., "Do gay and lesbian viewers experience modern dance in distinctly different ways from straight viewers?" The writing veers from the prolix to the poetic, leaning toward the personal and the political, most notably in a transcript of a talk about Joe Goode's 29 Effeminate Gestures given by David Gere of UCLA's World Arts and Cultures department. Lively and compelling because it was written to be performed, Gere's contribution gets at the question of why we find effeminacy funny.

The book is shot through with academic jargon, and I note several misspelled names, a shame in a volume that's been in production for years. But I love it: The writers are smart, the subjects really provocative. Forced by circumstance to compress my dance journalism into progressively smaller spaces, I find it a pleasure to witness good minds on the move, able to take ideas and run with them, in as many words as necessary to make and illustrate an argument.

 
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