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.
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.”
She remains adamant that a straight woman wouldn’t make the kind of no-holds-barred work she creates. “The whole nature of how you ordain your life as a lesbian is just organically, physically different,” she says. Besides the obvious marker of the love duet, Gadwa has also noticed that gay and straight female choreographers use space differently. While hesitant to generalize, she thinks straight women “take charge of the space less, and their work is more contained.”
But Carlson, whose performance work often defies categories, configures her sexuality as just one part of an array of influences, meanings, and ideas. “There’s much more fluidity around gender and sexual identity than is readily nameable.”
Monson, too, sees cause and effect flowing both ways: “I experience the world first and primarily as a dancer. All these other identities are a part of that.” Like Johnson, Monson never fit into the conventional mold, and throughout the ’90s sought a gender-neutral movement vocabulary for her company. Looking back at an era defined by the political urgency of the AIDS epidemic, Monson remembers also choreographing pieces such as Lesbian Avengers Pounding Dance, in which 25 to 30 women lay on the floor beating out contrapuntal rhythms with various body parts.
“I was part of a community that was out in the streets and in the theater claiming our right to live,” she says. “Being a lesbian choreographer meant making a certain kind of work.”
Recently Monson, now 42, has prioritized process, site, and abstraction. “I’m involved with a much more complex investigation of the body,” she says. “It’s definitely influenced by my physicality, which is influenced by my sexuality. But in dance you can express this in a more complicated physical language.”
Still, she recognizes that sexual identity is inescapably political. “As a lesbian you perceive the body as a place where power gets played out,” she says, “because you’re defined as Other. It really is about your body and who you are when you walk down the street.”
“Other Voices” by Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Anne Gadwa’s work appears at the HERE/Dixon Place “FUSE NYC Celebration of Queer Culture” on June 16, and at WOW Café Theatre June 26 (with Jennifer Monson), 27, and 29. Jen Abrams can be seen at HERE on June 17. Visit here.org and wowcafe.org/monste for full details.