BY ZANDER PORTER
When I was a pre-teenager in Los Angeles, I was enrolled in cotillion class at the Riviera Country Club. I walked in columns of heteronormative coupling; I memorized cutlery placements for a Californian-aristocratic dining etiquette. My awareness of my body disappeared as the claustrophobia of other children in the space engulfed me. To recall the occasion is to remember an engrossing, disembodied overwhelm. That ballroom accommodates a primary memory of social alienation.
In “ballroom dance,” performers are typically announced alongside their entrances, and they perform for the most “important” persons in the room, e.g., a king in his king’s seat or a judging panel in their respective chairs. Intended reception of the performance, in any case, is highly prioritized. In the 16th century, French cleric Jehan Tabourot published hisOrchésographie, a study of French renaissance social dance, including the basse danse, the branle, the pavane, and the galliarde. As an activity for privileged classes, ballroom emerged from these forms as a term in the early modern period, where “ballroom” derived closely from “dance room,” and in historical positioning would contrast “folk” dancing as a lower-class pastime. The complex underbelly of social dance as such must be considered within the frames of colonization, Westernization, and ethnic cleansing that would more readily embellish and preserve the images, fabrics, and bloodlines of “ballroom” dance(r)s. Differentiations of “ball” and “folk” might be racial-elitist, costume-oriented, or archive-based.
There exist examples, however, of ball-folk code-switching. One prominent documentation of this is the 1990 film Paris is Burning, depicting the ballroom scene of the Latinx- and African-American LGBTQ+ communities in Harlem, New York City. Individuals in the film organize balls in which gender, class, and race do not require correspondence with the overwhelmingly cisgender, wealthy, and white history of ballroom dance. Following a legacy that dates much further back towards the Harlem Renaissance (1918-1930s), 21st-century ballroom and voguing competitions now transpire between communities across the globe. The movement (voguing, walking, posing) events appropriate emphases on competition from iterations of drag-pageantry having begun already in Harlem as early as in the ‘60s. Functioning as life-supporting structures of community, balls have also been cornerstones for estranged queers, sex workers, and people facing HIV/AIDS and homelessness to develop new families and “Houses.”
In An Evening-length Performance, we witness a social dance whose choreographies recall fashions and feelings of ballroom’s more distant pasts, while also presently indenting its own small, unique edge into the entangled genre. Its moments of pairing reminisce of ballroom’s man-with-woman embraces, but the genders represented by its bodies and rhythms complicate hetero-idealized structures of duet, partnering, or synchronization. In addition, the work invites a horizontalized viewership/reception: Without a clear competitive motivation nor inseparable duos, the work evacuates any obvious purpose from the traditional win/lose-functions of ballroom. The resulting, performed sociality is, instead, contemplative. The performance’s choreography is both specified by James and ruminative due to idiosyncratic embraces and displays from each participating performer.
George’s poised and articulated shapes sync with a controlled slowness in the directional specificity of James’s limb movements. Natalie’s belly-held baby (now born and almost one year old) is comfortably cradled in her bodysuit while her body jerks back and forth with an angled friction reminiscent of Giorgia’s pivoting, waist-drawn ellipses. Everybody’s necks (especially Arad’s) and heads perform on choreographic cue for directional gazes and gaits; however, it is the specificity in each individual’s blinking speeds that both breaks a notion of synced perfection and integrates the social emphasis of the performance event. In further and abstracted detail: Two bodies angle limbs in similar postures, with both heads maintaining comparable angling speeds. Yet while one head’s eyes close and open at a familiarly slow pace, the other’s eyes close and open quickly, perhaps blinking even two or three more times in small matter of moments. Is this a difference in performance of attentiveness, presence, concentration? I am occupied by the social texture of that question.
Each body in An Evening-length Performance presents itself within the architectural performance of the space, as well as within the history of architectures in the performance’s development. Between such spaces of process in Bassano del Grappa, Berlin, and Bruges, the most influential is the Koninklijke Stadsschouwburg Brugge (Bruges Royal Municipal Theatre). After participating as a performer in the rehearsal-research process at Bassano del Grappa, I re-encountered the same bodies of the work in Bruges but as a now-“outside” eye. The Bruges Royal City Theatre recently celebrated its 150th birthday: It is supposedly one of Europe’s best preserved city theatres, a notion reminiscent of the small city’s World Heritage Site status and renaissance evolution from its original medieval city transformation after 1965 when restorations and preservations of its historical structures and layout began taking place. The theatre building’s sober, majestic, neo-Renaissance facade conceals the palatial foyer, in which our bodies presided for project development, and a red and gold auditorium, always residing mysteriously nearby and behind locked doors.
In the foyer of the past and in the performance at present, an unsuspecting choreography of recognition and directionality reflects and fractures traditional spatial functions. Bodies’ eyes maintain sharply forward gazes, together painting a horizontal web of eyesight. The web floats above the floor at eye-level, a plane of gazes intersecting each other and fragmenting the enclosure of the performance “stage.” Dancing partnerships appear less romantically-coded when attention is not always performed inwardly/mutually. Indirect notions of invitation and intimacy are thus floated outside, around, and in between audience corners. It becomes seductively imaginative to angle the neck upwards above at the baby-sky-blue fresco of cherubs depicted on the royal theatre’s (of the past) ceiling.
(…We collectively enter a submergence.)
A grandiose specter implied by the performing bodies transfers new codes around the room’s physical and social pasts: I reflect on which scene I myself might most enjoy participating in, as though I didn’t already do so before. Which duo combinations appear most “conjointly” in their steps versus most “asynchronous”? I question asynchrony against the sound score’s (Morgan’s) syncopations, finding something comfortable again.
The performativity of gender is extraordinarily influential in the spectatorship of movement. The historical man or the woman is one unit of a two-unit gender-expression dynamic, and his or her role and costume reflective of social archetypes. Sexual, intellectual, and emotional intimacies comprise various nodes for reading into dancing bodies and genders. What is a way, perhaps, to read the gender of the movement, the duo, or the whole group-unit itself, rather than picking apart the apparent masculinities and femininities of individual members’ body parts? Gender’s etymological connection to French “genre” opens doors for reconstructing the violent and individuating nature of “gender”; in genre, our feelings, reactions, and reflections upon a person’s or group’s presences are ambivalently beautiful genders themselves.
As a social-choreographic network,An Evening-length Performance is describable by performative nodes, representing fleeting bits of individuals and unseeable moments of process, whereby past performers crucial to the work’s development might not be present for current audiences. Thus, through this work, a matrix of idiosyncrasies architects a social dance of both ghostly and present embodiments, expanding beyond the temporal frame of “evening-length.” That openness then distends further between 16th/17th-century ballrooms and (my) prepubescent ’00s cotillion. Through its multi-embodied spike in time, letAn Evening-length Performance ask: What is a depiction of futurity (in togetherness) we know we desire versus one we are nostalgic for?
Zander Porter and James Batchelor have been collaborating since 2018. For An Evening-length Performance, which premieres at Tanz im August in summer 2021, Zander participated in the creation process initially as a performer and ultimately as an outside eye, recording reflections on the development of the work.