Men In Dance is an organization that encourages men and boys to dance without fear of ridicule or discouragement. They’ve been so successful—and the prospects for men in professional dance have improved so much—that Against the Grain/Men in Dance actually removed the words “Against the Grain” from the name of their organization. As they say on their website: “When this organization was founded (in 1994) we sincerely felt that pursuing a career in dance was a major uphill battle for a man. That is not true in the same way today, though there are still far fewer men in the dance field as a whole.”
But whoa, back! Maybe MID spoke too soon. On August 26, 2019, Lara Spencer, a host on Good Morning America, openly ridiculed six-year-old Prince George of England for loving his ballet class. She encouraged the audience to laugh along as she reported that “Prince William says George absolutely loves ballet. I have news for you, Prince William—we’ll see how long that lasts!” The reaction from the dance world to this insult was swift and sharp—numerous messages from famous dancers and choreographers appeared on social media scolding her for being so backward, and reminding her of the great male dancers who defied attitudes like hers to have careers in dance. George Balanchine, Arthur Mitchell, Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, Justin Peck, Paul Taylor, Gregory Hines, Michael Bennett, Ulysses Dove, Tommy Tune—the list goes on and on. Even Gene Kelly’s widow chimed in, saying “Gene would be devastated to know that 61 years after his ground-breaking work, the issue of boys and men dancing is still the subject of ridicule—and on a national network.” Male dancers and their female supporters from all over the city gathered in front of Good Morning America’s studios in Times Square to protest Spencer’s ignorant comments by conducting a free dance class for boys and girls
Despite Spencer’s apologies and efforts to backtrack on her foolish and harmful comments, the pushback against this prejudice against men and boys dancing—and against all gendered categories of work—continues to grow. Speaking as a girl who was told in the 4th grade that I couldn’t be an engineer because, in spite of high test scores in mechanical ability, I was a girl (this was in 1960), I despise the casual, withering attitudes that condemn children to gender stereotypes, and bully them if they don’t conform. Sorry, Lara Spencer—apologies may save your career, but you will be forever remembered as the troglodyte who made fun of a young boy for loving his dance class.
All the more reason to be grateful to Men In Dance (apparently still against the grain) for their brilliant encouragement of men and boys who want to enter the creative field of dance and choreography. For the third year in a row Men In Dance have offered young choreographers an opportunity to produce new dances and to hear experienced choreographers and dance professors evaluate their work in front of the audience. It’s a triple-win situation for everyone. The choreographers get to show their work, the dancers get to have a dances made on their bodies, and the audience gets to hear how professionals critique and encourage new dance makers.
I was only able to attend the first showcase, but the quality of dance was such that I wish I could have gone to them all. This year’s opening showcase consisted of five works by two women and three men, and was performed, of course, by an all-male-identifying troupe of excellent dancers. In the order of performance, here’s what happened at Velocity Founder’s Theater—a wonderfully intimate venue where dance lovers can see works “up close and personal”:
“This Is the Reactability of the Appetizer”
Choreographer: Beth Terwilliger
Dancers: Corbin Hall, Maeve Haselton, Robert Moore, Thomas Phelan
Music: Bryce Dessner + Kronos Quartet
Four dancers appear in white pants, red socks and bare chests except for black tape that encircles their breasts. One dancer with long hair stands upstage left and executes robot movements to the percussive, aggressive sounds of mechanical music, while two other dancers enter and to more lyrical music, perform a soft, elegant dance, followed by a man who dances to a cello solo and seems to humanize the robot in the background. The dance moves are highly contrasted between the mechanical and the humane, as is the narrative, which seems to be about being human in an atmosphere that militates against the full expression of higher life and feelings.
All of which seems to have little to do with the program notes, in which Terwilliger explains her dance as inspired by early motherhood, and her desire to support her children for “who they are and not who society expects them to be.” I wish the title of the dance helped us out a bit, but so what? It was a fascinating dance, full of interesting duets (a smaller person supporting a much larger partner on their shoulders), solos (one dancer jogging up and down while another performs an impressive string of pirouettes across the back of the stage), and a very exciting unison dance at the end, involving a wide range of ballet, modern, and karate moves. I thought the soundscape was very compelling.
“…But My Soul Drew Back”
Choreographer: Joel Hathaway
Dancers: Joel Hathaway, Chauncey Parsons
Music: Partita for Eight Singers: No. 3 Courante by Roomful of Teeth
Music: Partita for Eight Singers: No. 3 Courante by Roomful of Teeth
Hathaway is an experienced dancer and choreographer who originated this work for the men of the Milwaukee Ballet II—six dancers—and pared it down to two dancers for MID. I would have like to see the six-man group, because what we saw in Seattle was so perfectly calibrated for two men who moved through a wide range of emotional expressions that it’s hard to imagine it for a larger corps. (There is a video on FB but it wouldn’t open for me). The music was closely harmonized and hymn-like as the pair danced in mirror images. Was it one person studying himself, or a pair studying each other? The dancing was very impressive, varied, and skilled as the two personas moved through images of joy, anguish, rejection, and reconciliation. The soundscape turns harsh at the end, though, as one figure mimes the theft of the heart (or soul) of the other—an ambiguous and unexpected note that left this viewer curious. I guess it was the soul drawing back—but the one thing you don’t want to do with an abstract form like dance is to impose a too literal story on it. The left brain is always seeking a narrative, but the right brain is OK with images—and this dance ended on a very powerful image.
“he kept him”
Choreographer: Elise Meiners Schwicht
Dancers: Elijah Kirk, Robert Moore, Jordan Rohrs, Ben Swenson, Alex Ung
Music: Max Eastley, Steve Beresford, Paul Burwell, John Tavener, David Toop
This dance had the largest group of dancers to convey its meaning, inspired, as Schwicht wrote in her program notes, by the concept expressed in Deuteronomy 32 (“he kept him as the apple of his eye”) of being a reflection in the eye of the beloved, or the “little man of the eye”. How this plays out in the dance—which was more like pantomime—was varied and complex, with men crawling scratching, running in place, gesturing in large ambiguous motions, and finally coming together in a unison dance in which they link elbows and flow together like a bird’s wing or ripple of water. That was my favorite part and I wish it had lasted longer. This was a dance that any healthy person (who can count) could do—my note to myself is that there wasn’t much dance in it, even though Schwicht had the largest dance forces. Her ending sequence was so beautiful that I hope in the future she will use more of that aspect of her choreographic gift, to have dancers actually dance together.
Choreographer: Nashon Mardon
Dance/performance Artist, Dustin Durham
Composer/Producer: Max Rico
This dance was the hit of the evening because it contained a real show-stopper of a number. Two handsome fellows in stripped shorts and cut-off tee shirts have a vamping competition that takes various forms through out the sequences—bobbing up and down, shoving each other around, turning on each other, ignoring each other. But when they get together and put on a show—with sassy posing, splits, lifts, and gymnastics—the audience went wild, just as we were meant to do. Mardon has something interesting to say about cooperation, and he says it very clearly. The final sequence of this delightful dance has the two men moving side-by-side in unison—not really together, but in a unity— as if to demonstrate that what happens together happens to the group, whereas what happens solo just happens to me. It seems obvious, but this dance made me consider the distinction in a way I hadn’t considered before—or at least didn’t seem as relevant as it does now in our current political universe. You don’t have to like each other to get along. You can cooperate. Mardon should take this dance to the other Washington and do it for Congress.
“The Unnatural Pattern”
Choreographer: Daniel Ojeda
Dancers: Evan Stevens, Antonio CarnelEthan Schweitzer-Gaslin,
Music: Louis Cole, Johnny Greenwood, Ken Griffin
The final dance of the evening was by Daniel Ojeda, a very experienced choreographer who has worked with Ballet Idaho extensively, among other companies. He explains in the program notes that an unnatural pattern in mathematics is a statistical distribution that indicates “the presence of outside disturbances affecting a process.” What this looks like in dance is men who are blinded by light, whose tee shirts are pulled over their heads, who are regimented like machines, and whose relationships are uprooted by the third person—the unnatural pattern. Though this fragmented description makes it sound like a fragmented dance, it wasn’t. It was a real dance rather than a pantomime—the dancers were very skilled, the dance vocabulary was complex, the movement was powerful. Ojeda is clearly a choreographer to watch, and I’m very glad he had this opportunity to make a dance in Seattle.
All together, the first evening of the 2019 Adjudicated Choreographers Showcase was a huge success, as the full house audience demonstrated with their cheers of approval. I stayed for the adjudications, and was fascinated to hear the technical comments of the professional dance teachers who offered advice. Their focus was on the micro level (distance between dancers that describe the spaces; duration of poses and clarity of gestures; relationship of music to narrative, etc.) My focus is on the macro level—why are there so many dances to soundscapes and so few dances to composed music (there were none in this showcase); why is there so much gestural pantomime and less use of dancers to form larger patterns; why so much narrative and so little lyric dancing? These seem to be generational questions—I know I’m an older viewer coming from more traditional dance scenes. Even my favorite choreographers—Balanchine, Mark Morris, Crystal Pite—must seem older to these young choreographers.
What a privilege to see young dance-makers emerge, and what a service to art Men in Dance provides by encouraging men and boys to follow their bliss and engage in dancing. Boo on Lara Spencer and all her ilk whose inclination is to make fun of people who defy gender stereotypes in order to do what their spirits tell them. Yay for Prince William who told some young street dancers that “If it’s something you love, do what you love—don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.” Those are wise words for all young people, and especially for boys who want to dance (and girls who want to be engineers).