For as much presence as queer people (mainly men) have in ballet, there still isn’t much queer representation in the works that make it to the stage. Even when there is LGBTQ representation it’s through the lens of romance or coming out, and I too have fallen into this generalization. There is so much more to the queer narrative besides love or acknowledging your identity to the world, and I wanted to provide a space for that.
This whole idea stemmed from a topic brought up in “Real Queer America” by Samantha Allen. “Queerness is as much about friendship as it is about sex.” People’s discomfort stems from our queerness and ability to defy society not necessarily the sexual acts. Why does heteronormativity claim jurisdiction on companionship, tenderness, friendship, etc. Chosen Family is a significant and vital element that exists in LGBTQ culture. They say “you can’t choose your family” but many queer people have to end up making families of their own since their biological families reject them. “The people with whom you grew up can become stranger in a single heartbreaking instant.” These chosen families hold stronger bonds than normal friendship, even stronger than “typical family” relationships. This social hierarchy of love (spouse, then family, then friends) is dismantled by queerness. Plus that weird blend of mentorship and friendship, not centered around your career/age, but how you exist in the world.
The act of “coming out” is a bond that significantly defines our queer world, even though it’s more of a display for the straight world. It’s not just the admittance of your gender or who you are attracted to, but it’s taking off the armor you’ve built for so long in order to exist. It’s revealing that vulnerability, to really accept yourself, and know that society isn’t telling you how to exist. There’s a level of authenticity that we are able to have that I can imagine is difficult for people outside of our world to conceive. Even this process of coming to terms with yourself can be messy, and it’s the queer community that will be there to understand and support. Just having a few allies that validate your full self is survival. Especially in small rural areas, where if anything the queer narrative is either violence (political or physical) against queers, or someone rising above all of that to make a name for themselves.
There’s also queer world making. How do LGBTQ people carve out those safe havens and what does that look like? What does it look like when there isn’t a “gay district” because society is liberal enough to not need those escapes? Would I still want that escape though? Is there more acceptance in the only gay club in the city (where the entire queer community must exist) or the multiple ones in a gay district (that divide the queer community into further subsections)? Or what if your community is so small that the only refuge is a place to drink, but you're sober, and you want to get out of the small town but there's so much conflict in that as well.
The complexity and nuanced nature of these topics are important but difficult to tackle in just choreography alone. So I asked local playwright and friend, Allie Fireel to embark on a unique collaboration. Allie, is the Artistic Director of the Louisville Fringe Festival and is currently completely their MFA through the University of Louisville. Both of us are committed to using our marginalized identities to elevate untold stories in our respective fields. As members of the second class of the Hadley Creatives, we have been recognized by our city as artists who are essential to shaping the arts landscape of our community. We both have a record of delivering great, innovative, and thought provoking art to Louisville . “The Movement” is the first professional dance/theatre hybrid created and set in Louisville. This version of a choreo-play has a cast of dancers performing the play physically, but the words the audience hears, the dialogue, is recorded and performed by actors. The dancers are moving to the music of the actors' voices. On top of this groundbreaking format, “The Movement” dives into the complexities of queer friendships and chosen family in a narrative that is entertaining and accessible for all audiences.
When the pandemic hit, there was potential to expand the work even more. With the dancers masked, it seemed even more appropriate to hear the characters’ voices through the audio. It’s like the actors are providing the voices that have been taken away from the dancers. The pandemic also allowed us to incorporate comparisons to the AIDS epidemic; the mass death and public health concerns would be triggering for those who already had to live through something like that. The murder of Breonna Taylor also brought protests on racism to the forefront of Louisville’s story. It was a narrative we wanted to address, but considering neither Allie nor myself is Black, we didn’t feel we had the authority to tell that story. It was important for us to bring on somebody to the project, who could authentically color the intersection of being both Black and gay. Local playwright, Cris Eli Blak, was brought onto the project and wrote two incredible monologues for the character of Emerson (a Black activist from Louisville). The voice actor for Emerson, Jahi Bogard, actually ended up playing him in the filmed performance as well. He came in with some choreography of his own, which helped really distinguish his character from the other four people in the scene. Collaborations are always fun, but including other artists to tell their stories will only improve the work.
The team assembled for this project is bigger than anything I’ve tackled in a new work before. In an ideal world we would’ve had actors perform the dialogue live as the dancers performed, but COVID safety meant that we had to pre-record everything. As a talented cast of actors met for rehearsals over Zoom, I was amazed watching the actors use their craft to connect and deliver meaningful performances under the direction of Ariadne Calvano (Assistant Professor at University of Louisville). Each rehearsal I felt we were peeling back another layer on these characters, and oftentimes we don’t have the time to do that kind of character work as dancers. Not only could I take back this insight to the dancers but I was also learning a skill that could be applied to my own work as a dancer. When the pandemic meant this performance had to be created for the digital platform, it meant restructuring my approach to choreography. Normally I love making the audience’s eyes dance around as they have to decide for themselves what aspect of the piece they want to focus on. For film I have to make that decision for them (or the editors for Kertis Creative would help make that decision for me ). What came out of that was the ability for the audience to immersed in the scene. It’s like they are now another character. In a work that centers on intimacy, but the characters can’t touch, this was a useful tool to access.
For me this piece isn’t about the choreography, as it is about the story and the snapshot of these amazing characters. Over the months it’s taken to develop this project I’ve fallen more and more in love with the characters Allie has created for “The Movement.” Brent, an alcoholic in recovery, who grew up and came out during the AIDS epidemic and wishes to shield his younger friends from any homophobic trauma. Annie is a millennial lawyer, who bridges the gap between two generations and prides herself as the mediator and problem solver. Dani is a college student, who is fed up with the Louisville and wants to move to a bigger city where her queer identity will be better received. Cat has moved from a rural town and has been able to carve out safe spaces for themselves both in Louisville and online (but still deals with transphobia in both spaces). Finally there’s Emerson, a Black Louisville activist who is called to show up for both his Black and queer communities but neither is able to see him as a whole individual. In 15 minutes we get little glimpses into these individuals, but I could spend a full-length show that really unpacks the lives and circumstances that brought this chosen family together. It is my intent for LGBTQ+ audiences to see another side of themselves represented in the media, and for non-queer people to see a different narrative.
Due to the large team of actors and writers, it was necessary to crowd fund in order to compensate these local artists for their time. Thanks to 25 donors and a media sponsorship through TAUNT Magazine we were able to accomplish this. “The Movement” is evidence of the Louisville community coming together to develop original stories and support artists right here in our city.
“The Movement” can be seen in Louisville Ballet’s “ChorShow” along with the debut of four other original works. This is an all-digital performance, filmed and edited by Kertis Creative. Tickets can be bought here, and will be streaming until June 30th.