Lesbian Choreographers Redefine Motion

It's Not the Meat

In this post-identitarian era, being a queer artist hardly guarantees outsider status, as a clutch of upcoming Pride performances attest. Worth noting amid the celebrating, however, is that prior to Stonewall, the cutting-edge downtown dance scene was not open or hospitable to lesbians.

Looking back at that era, founding postmodernist Yvonne Rainer (now a happily out lesbian filmmaker) wrote that the two gay women she knew during the '60s were often harassed by her Judson Dance Theater colleagues. One, Voice dance critic Jill Johnston, railed against dance's tacit heterosexism in these pages—once calling ballet "an unrelieved exercise in phallic erected exhibitionism." Ultimately frustrated by the dance world's closet,

Johnston came out in the paper a few months before Stonewall, then transformed her column into a rollicking account of her adventures in bed and on the front lines of the budding women's and gay liberation movements.

Baby dyke: Anne Gadwa, performing at "FUSE" and WOW, takes charge of space.
photo: Rose Callahan
Baby dyke: Anne Gadwa, performing at "FUSE" and WOW, takes charge of space.

Today, choreographers like Anne Gadwa, 23, find that gay sexuality is no longer a detriment. Being a lesbian may even be an asset in the current competitive, resource-poor climate. "The pressure is on, whether you're straight or queer, to get shown right away," says Gadwa. "My curation at certain venues might not have happened so quickly had it not been around queer programming. I'm a young, emerging artist who happens to be a dyke and they needed a dyke."

Still, identifying a lesbian in dance can be harder than finding a heterosexual man. While anecdotal estimates of the number of gay men working in the Manhattan dance scene hover between 80 and 85 percent, the idea of coming up with an equivalent percentage of dykes seems laughable.

But despite their dearth in numbers, lesbians impact the field in lasting ways. Choreographers such as Elizabeth Streb, Ann Carlson, Jennifer Monson, and Sarah East Johnson are exploring new modes of physicality. Their work runs the gamut from Streb's high-impact investigations of gravity, momentum, and force and Johnson's acrobatic daredevilry to Carlson's enigmatic solos and Monson's improvisational, site-specific work. They re-conceptualize the female body in motion.

Often, these explorations are born out of necessity. Johnson, for example, didn't set out to flout gender stereotypes; they just kept getting in her way. "In all my training—from the most experimental modern dance to ballet—women were supposed to be skinny or lithe or ephemeral, not big and muscular. Finding a way to move that was empowering led me to acrobatics; being a lesbian and a feminist allowed me to not give up. Instead of saying, 'Oh, I guess I can't be a dancer,' I said, 'I'll re-create dance to be something I can do.' "

The result of her perseverance is LAVA, six strong, athletic women supporting one another (literally and metaphorically) in risky partnering gambits and daring feats. Johnson, 35, has built a dedicated dyke following—attending a LAVA concert is like going to a WNBA game—but the troupe also appeals to a broad constituency that includes families. "The work isn't about being gay," Johnson says. "I can embrace feminism, then make shows about relationship, trust, and geology."

Streb, Carlson, and Monson similarly recall watershed moments when they knew they had to color outside the lines or consider another career. In filmmaker Michael Blackwood's recent Streb: Pop Action, the 53-year-old subject states, "There came a time when I knew I was lying." She could no longer do normal dancing. Her goal since has been to understand movement on its own terms.

But having her work pigeonholed as "lesbian" was a concern for Streb, preventing her from being visibly out. "It wasn't like I was slinking around. I just needed to prove to myself that this was an idea, let alone a good idea, before I attached that a lesbian was making it. I felt that my work would be dismissed. I still fight the transgression of being a female asking for those type of moves—it's not polite, you know. I suspect that a lot of the language thrown at my work over the last couple of decades would've been different if I were a guy. Instead of calling it 'violent' and 'sadomasochistic,' it would've been considered 'athletic' and 'rambunctious.' "

Carlson's turning point occurred during her work on her "animal series," including visit woman move story cat cat cat. The 1987 nude solo-with-cat spilled over into her personal life, helping the 48-year-old realize she was gay. "That piece was really close to the bone," she recalls. "I was teasing apart my own personal history and mythologies and realized if I was going to be an artist I needed to make the kind of work I wanted to make, rather than work I was supposed to want to do—a parallel experience to realizing my sexual identity."

Parsing the interplay of sexuality and cultural product, however, is a thorny task. Streb sees living outside the hetero social script as a primary influence on a choreographer's creativity: "When you're out of that box, it allows you to break out in other ways, make different choices, ask other questions. You're much more able to discard the tools that have already been invented. It's a crazy statement to make, but I think gay female choreographers think more deeply in a formal way because they have less to lose."

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