On Saturday night, I did not want to go to the theater.
My week had been busy and I’d already seen a show. I was having cocktails with friends who I never see outside of a lobby. Right before getting in the car someone said “this is the point in the night we always reach and we decide whether we are dancers or human beings,” implying that humans would stay and revel in their friendships, while dancers pile in and rush to shows they feel obligated to see.
But with a sense of obligation I went, like most dancers do.
Sometimes I wish I’d opted into being a human person who stays out on Saturday night. But last night, I didn’t regret my choice for even a second. As Taylor Mac, a drag performer and playwright, shared an excerpt from “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” I recalled that going to the theater is not only about a willingness to risk your evening but also about the periodic rewards that come with doing so.
This particular excerpt performed a brief history of civil rights through the lens of popular music from 1956 -1976. After feeling tortured by most shows that have similar aims (me engaging with a performer as they deal with identity politics) I was for once, a joiner, a willing participant:
I sang. I did unison gestures. I exaggerated cries to demonstrate the absurdity of white fragility (as Mac said, “this will go on a lot longer than you want it to.”) I threw fake red rose petals on the audience member acting as a deceased Judy Garland, her pallbearers taking her (starkly serious) out of the theater as Mac sang “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” The one thing I didn’t do was throw a ping pong ball at Mac and the Dandy Minions (costumed pedestrians facilitating some of the evening’s events) to represent homophobia. I felt like it was a “what would you do moment,” and I let my ball roll to the floor.
My willingness to involve myself appears to exist outside of a vacuum. I first heard of Mac’s work when modern dance choreographer Faye Driscoll was part of “The Lily’s Revenge.” A Variety write-up of that show indicates that “what could potentially be a grueling experience [is] something cool and fun and even communal, if you’re open to the possibility.”
Part of that success is found in the form of drag itself. Drag already lacks a topical earnestness in its willingness to upend the surface of identity. By contrast, earnestness is presupposed in dance, particularly in activist works. That earnestness may make intellectual sense but is, most of the time, misery for audiences. In drag, any questionable or weaker commentary folds into the persona of the presenter but I think some of us make a mistake in assuming queens are who they purport to be. Mac is no more obligated to be in accordance with the political topics addressed by the evening than a Butoh performer is obligated to be a contemplative Buddhist.
But political topics aplenty are addressed over the course of the two and a half hour concert. From the jump, a center section is asked to become an urban area reserved exclusively for seating people of color, demanding white flight to the suburbs (standing room only). We are also asked to tweet government leaders in Flint (where water is still contaminated and where the costume designer for this project recently taught). Near the end, we listen to a Ted Nugent cover while problematizing homophobia and slow dancing with someone of the same sex to trigger Nugent’s metaphoric death. In this range, some moments are inevitably more resonant than others. While tweeting is largely ineffective, the junior prom moment is evocative and beautiful. This politicized ebb and flow (covering Stonewall, marches on Washington, even the death of Prince) coincides with the representation of band members themselves, a group that seems to represent a wide range of both genre and geography*. How these political events shake out in the 24 hour version of the same concert only beg more questions about what comes out on top.
To be fair, Utah Presents didn’t do many favors in securing me as the audience member I became. Utah’s culture prescribes a mandate that prior to a performance, ticket-holders receive abundant warning about adult content and telling us that we should prepare for a long show with no intermission. I resent this and want to mention here that these e-mails leave out an asterisk that should read: “we have to say this because the people who fund art don’t actually engage with it and that’s a long-term political and historically religious problem and furthermore, ignore this message, because this show is not only transgressive, it’s fun.” Mac additionally addressed this during the show by requesting that we give an ovation for the curtain speech (administrative labor is labor!) but also admonishing the naming of wealthy sponsors who may not, in fact, need our earnest thanks.
I’m willing to wager that not only would more people have attended if presenters marketed a less undermined truth but also that they’d be willing to engage with more local art-making that uses the same concepts or methods as the artists they present. For example: when Ragamala toured to Kingsbury they invited local Bharatanatyam openers for (presumably) audience development. Why then were there so many caveats to this concert instead of an equal invitation to the Bad Kids (although some of them may have been the minions described above) or to Janice Janice Janice, a grad student performing university thesis work at Metro? Whether or not there was time to include them as in Ragamala, there was most certainly the opportunity to offer them the advertising they need in support of their work to make it as effective and ubiquitous as this particular evening.
Maybe that sort of connection is to come tomorrow, Tuesday January 17th at 7:30pm in Kingsbury Hall when Mac meets with Bill T. Jones and Niegel Smith to dialogue about art and activism. The event is free but requires tickets.
Ashley Anderson directs loveDANCEmore using the resources of her 501c3 “ashley anderson dances.” ashleyandersondances.com