Review of Fresh Meat—June 16, 2005
By Jessica Robinson
San Francisco’s queerest month has a great deal to offer dance audiences—from the delicate lesbian relationships presented in duets by Dance Ceres to queer Asian American dance to choreography created at a sex club by Joe Landini, June is packed with great dance with a queer twist. Amidst these offerings is Fresh Meat, a performance festival that highlights transgender performance—one of the only festivals to move the “T” of “LGBT” from the end of the word to the beginning. On Thursday, Fresh Meat’s dance offerings were as varied as the gender identities of its performers—from classic burlesque to contemporary dance to breakdancing, choreographers presented a range of work notable for its diversity of both theme and genre.
For dance audiences, the heart of the evening was the premier of Fresh Meat Artistic Director Sean Dorsey’s new piece, “6 Hours.” Dorsey, San Francisco’s leading transgender choreographer, creates nuanced yet highly physical works that address gender identity in the context of relationship, community, and the world at large. The sound score, composed almost entirely of a recorded narration by Dorsey, interjected with live dialogue from the performers, forms the backbone of the piece. The memoir-style narrative unfolds over the course of a 6-hour car trip which takes the genderqueer protagonist (Dorsey) and his relatively new lover (Mair Culbreth) on a journey to visit his distant, and possibly estranged, father. While common to the experience of queer and transgender people, the issues inherent in this type of journey—from clothing decisions to the revelation of a suppressed birth name—may be new territory for non-trans viewers. Dorsey’s narrative relates the story in poignant yet simple dialogue, rendering the experience accessible to a wide-ranging audience.
Choreographically, Dorsey’s work has moved from abstract subtlety to a more narrative theatricality over the last several years. “6 Hours” seems a natural outgrowth of “Second Kiss” (2004), which tells the story of a playground encounter between a popular girl and a young genderqueer who is struggling with the difference between the experience of gender and the realities of the body. Both pieces combine heartstring-tugging dialogue with an uplifting ending, and both pieces would benefit from a departure from over-reliance on recorded narrative. While “6 Hours” is clearly story-driven, the choreography is, thankfully, not literal. While there are moments of recognizable gesture—grabbing the steering wheel during a lover’s tiff, rubbing the stomach in a display of anxiety—the majority of the movement captures the spirit of the relationship between the characters, as opposed to its physical trappings. The gestural conversation of the duet is an area in which Dorsey excels. The dancers display alternating intimacy and hostility, tumbling over each other in a confusion of arms and legs, then abruptly stiffening and separating to claim autonomy.
Dorsey’s recent work is also developing an expanded sense of momentum and full-bodied movement, perhaps influenced by work with established San Francisco choreographer Lizz Roman. Here, the collaboration with Mair Culbreth is especially vibrant. Both incredibly strong and technically proficient dancers, Culbreth and Dorsey execute lifts and leaps with precision, throwing themselves across the stage with controlled abandon. Culbreth is notable as a performer for both her technical control and her expressive face, and the chemistry and trust between Culbreth and Dorsey is palpable.
Dorsey’s piece would certainly be most familiar to the dance audience that usually frequents ODC. By placing contemporary dance in the context of queer performance, Dorsey enriches both forms, and provides content to challenge the assumptions and touch the lives of both queer and straight audiences.
Pushing boundaries in another way, the Extra Credit Cru are part of a larger movement democratizing hip hop dance and breakdancing, and opening the doors of those traditionally male forms to young women. This all-female brekdancing crew performed a rousing medley of solo and ensemble dance, showcasing individual talents and personalities while playing to the audience with remarkable passion and energy.
Perhaps the most interesting and complex performances of gender through dance were by Dr. Jafer and Miguel Chernus-Goldstein. Dr. Jafer’s interpretation of “Creative East Indian Dance” drew attention to the feminine aspects of the classical forms in a way that a similar performance by a biological woman could not. Similarly, Chernus-Goldstein’s stately and elegant aerial routine presented a subtle mix of gender messages. While the performer’s physique was clearly male, his seductively shimmering costume and the conspicuous, performative release of his long hair was distinctly feminine.
The dance offerings of the program were rounded out by a flawless performance from Harlem Shake Burlesque (the country’s only existing Black Burlesque Troupe) in which two church ladies’ religious fervor transforms into sexy celebration in a matter of minutes. The performers’ transition from hats and gloves to fringe and sequins was accomplished with trademark musicality and impeccable timing, accompanied by enthusiastic cheers from the audience. While employing a traditional style of burlesque choreography, this piece reclaimed and affirmed the sexual agency and visibility of queer femme identity—and flirted with blasphemy in style.
One cannot complete a description of the evening without mentioning the many strong performances by non-dance artists. Opening the evening were Katastrophe and Scarletto, two young transgender hip hop artists whose rousing lyrics were both enthusiastically empowering and chill-inducing in their brutal honesty. Solo theater artist Scott Turner Shofield performed a brilliantly-executed and heartfelt riff on gender in the context of debutante balls, and the Viragos contributed their edgy “transgressive rock” to the bill. In a particularly successful collaboration, renowned local writer Thea Hillman and poet Johnnie Pratt drew parallels between the experience of taking testosterone voluntarily as a part of the transition from female to male, and taking it involuntarily as a treatment for the condition of being intersex (born with reproductive anatomy that doesn’t fit typical definitions of male or female). The world’s first transgender barbershop quartet, the TransAms, closed the evening with touching renditions of old classics. The song, “Stand by Me” took on new resonance when performed by transgender artists, and “Goodnight Sweetheart” provided a fitting closing to a full evening.
While Fresh Meat began as a one-time event to celebrate transgender and queer art within those communities, it has grown and expanded considerably in terms of quality and diversity. The trans-genre nature of this trans-gender event, and the high quality of the performances, should attract the attention and enjoyment of straight folks and queer folks alike for years to come.