James Gardella’s “glitter fabulous” @ Dixon Place
I sat in Dixon Place awaiting the start of a three part split bill on gender and queerness, having worked my way through the undercurving, red-lit tunnel which leads to the space. I was already imagining this as the site of a journey into imagined identities and fantasies – the mix of desire and performance which is often so much a part of being “queer.”
The first piece presented was glitter fabulous, a series of duets choreographed/performed by James Gardella in collaboration with Chris Braz. It was described in the program as “both a celebration and critique of contemporary gay culture,” and I found that from the very beginning the line between the two was blurred for me. Questions of race and gender, specifically the whiteness and misogyny which runs through a lot of gay male culture, immediately starting coming to mind.
glitter fabulous began with Violet Elixir (James’ drag persona) and Chris Braz working themselves through markedly contemporary-dance sequences, following each other mostly with unison movements, leg swings, extensions and the like. Violet Elixir had a “voice,” through lip-syncing the words and noises of 80’s synthpop group Yazoo, whereas Chris did not; Violet Elixir had structured lace costuming, whereas Chris had comparatively drab black and white “typical” male dancer wear. At first it was clearly James as Violet Elixir who led. I found myself questioning this; the white-passing gay choreographer is leading the black gay dancer through sequences made up of the “usual suspects” of contemporary dance plus vogue super-lite? While the program copy pointed to “themes of gender, identity, self, and sexuality” that do not necessarily revolve around race, over the course of the dance I started to see how race permutated different ways to question, for me, the forces at play in contemporary gay male culture.
Leg kicks on the floor, which were almost absurd in their simplicity, transitioned into costume changes which led to an established equality between the two dancers. Chris had an emotional solo full of intensity, reaching gestures, desperation for some unclear thing, and which led me to think: here’s representation! It was a clearly heartfelt moment contrasting with (what I perceived to be) a previously blasé attitude. Over time, the men became more bare and violence and death began to creep in in between femme cat-walks. The dancers, through some unknown trigger, toggled between a hallucination of feminization and suffocation. I felt a story forming in those moments. Realizing the disconnect between the type of movement and their masculine bodies, suffocation resulted; vogueing rung drier and drier over the course of the piece and over the past few decades.
I was left without a clear interpretation of the choreographer’s intent; the piece ended with the two laying motionless under a circle of light center stage, clad only in fluorescent wigs and jockstraps. Were they dead or just passed out at the end of a night out? I saw overwhelming sadness. On the one hand, these two had danced their lives away and may have just had a great night, but on the other hand, gay culture is permeated with death. With all the synthpop and vogueing there was no avoiding evocation of the history of gay culture and the often invisible force of HIV/AIDS that defined the 80s and 90s. Just as ball culture (drag and vogueing included) carried on through that time, so too did gay culture, and neither can exist as contemporary ideas without acknowledgement of that mass murder.
I saw in the end of the piece that recognition of history, and, perhaps, a suggestion of the death of gay masculinity and gay culture. Maybe the piece recognizes that, fundamentally, gay liberation is over. Most of the gay men and trans women – the queers – who were the lifeblood of that movement died of AIDS-related complications, en masse or later one by one. I acknowledge that my relationship to all of this is complicated by my own identity. As a trans woman who once identified as a gay man, perhaps I am left only with my internal reflection on how I came into and then out of gay culture as I found my identity. Seeing a man in drag on stage brings up complicated feelings; I see the misogyny so often inherent in much of drag performance, but I also recognize that I did drag myself before coming to terms with my identity.