‘Hoo-Ha’ wins Bessie nod: Darrell Jones on his latest work

Photo by William Frederking

Photo by William Frederking

Darrel Jones’ Hoo-Ha (for your eyes only) was seen as an excerpt during Danspace Project’s PLATFORM 2012: Parallels, and was shown May 23-25 as an evening-length work at the end of Danspace’s season. At a press conference on Wednesday to announce Bessie nominees (to be presented on October 7), Jones was named recipient of the 2013 Juried Bessie Award, chosen by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Eiko Otake, and Jason Samuels Smith. His work feels current and stylish, but his process was deeply thoughtful and involved years of significant research. He possesses a unique mix of rigor, consideration, and humor, and Hoo-Ha employs an unlikely mix of choreographic languages in a way that feels provocative but respectful to each; it is playful, but there are no gimmicks. Jones calls Hoo-Ha “the release of the oppressed feminine in the male body,” and the work relies heavily on archetypal “female” posturing and recognizable voguing vocabulary.

Upon entering the cavernous St. Mark’s Church sanctuary, we were greeted with the thumping bass of DJ Swaguerilla (Justin Mitchell)’s high-energy set and seated in two facing groups lining the long space. With the spectators piled onto risers and shouting to greet each other over the music, the atmosphere was more weeknight dance party than the familiar hushed reverence of opening night at Danspace.

What followed was a mysterious fantasia of a dance. Rose petals were strewn about ceremoniously and then carelessly. Jones (with collaborators Damon Greene and J’Sun Howard) stomped, spun, and slunk, slipping in and out of focus as the music droned louder and faster and then disappeared. The three strutted purposefully and retreated into wandering the sidelines, occasionally glancing up and giggling. They slapped clouds of sweat droplets from each other’s faces, whipped their long ponytails, and, in a subdued episode, hovered over each other in a close threesome, mouth-to-mouth and mouth-to-groin.

The three have been working since 2007 (partly in residence at MANCC) with deconstructions of the vocabulary and culture of vogueing balls as a method of releasing female energy in/from the male body. When I spoke to Jones in advance of the premiere, he shared two formative memories: one, at 10 years old, of sensing his father’s intense fear in response to watching his pre-adolescent son experiment with different (perhaps not neatly gendered) postures and gaits; and two, a decade later, of his first exposure to the voguing world at a black gay club in Atlanta, hearing a disembodied voice commanding, “you better vogue, bitch.”

He realized, “oh this has a name! This has form!” He recounts his first experience as a participant, dancing before a runway lined with observers, the room going quiet, the music switching off, and the MC-figure asking, “where did she come from? She is feeling this! We gotta get a category for this!”

Jones “didn’t go through the formal pedagogy of joining a house;” his emergence into voguing culture “was more of a personal initiation.” Since receiving a Chicago Dancemakers Forum grant in 2006, he has been conducting explorations of “ritual feminized” and “de-feminized” performances, including an exercise that involves moving quickly through space without separating the knees or allowing the arms to swing away from the body. To Jones, this approach to holding the body (designed to take up as little space as possible) feels stereotypically female. “Putting that on our bodies and trying to do things like that is not efficient — it feels like a type of ritual. The repetition of that way of moving feels like a rite of passage and we feel a blocked area begin to open up. But rehearsal ends and we leave, moving the way we move as men.”

“Oppressed is an important word,” he says. “There’s a complex equation of masculine and feminine, of accessing feminine energy in the male body, the bodies that have traditionally oppressed that.” He describes himself as not typically language-oriented, and has been working with dramaturg Talvin Wilks to find language to understand ideas he considers to be “not something we can really claim in our male bodies.”

In striving to access a body he couldn’t claim, Jones became fixated on female fight scenes, adding samples from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the sound score. “I’ve always been attracted to that kind of badass fighting female,” he says. “In my own certain way I can own that, I can pull that off. We’re trying to figure out the right energy to get at it, and we have to get at it with a fight.” That effort echoes his resistance to getting mired in theory and his desire to balance language with physical impetus. He acknowledges the prevalence of “language used to ignite” (bitch, cunt, pussy, etcetera) in the voguing world, which is “99.999 percent black male, so the application of these words is in a closed environment.” Hoo-Ha ends with “pussy” treated almost as a physical object, repeated relentlessly and rapidly, with the focus on the sensations generated in the body, not on a word heavy with meaning.

Jones considers Wilks’ influence to be necessary to the the process of distillation, allowing him to locate what is essential and nudging material away from over-explicitness. They kept track of ephemera in structural “bins,” with titles like procession, female fighting, hoo-ha (“the potential for a burst of energy, like HOO-HA!”), castrado (“the essence came out eventually so we didn’t need to be so on-the-nose…but it started out being about removing our junk”), and spiral (“there’s something important about that shape — the openness, it’s internal/external but not dichotomous”).

We talk about the fear that underscored the process, from his childhood memory to actual bodily experiences in rehearsal: “I will experience moments of wholeness when my body is not here, and that is scary. There are spiritual practices that are meant to do that — that’s the high that’s harder to accomplish at a performative level. Finding the vocabulary of the oppressed feminine movement in my body is something doable, something I can describe to my collaborators. Reaching wholeness is a little harder.”

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