In Conversation with Vanessa Anspaugh
Vanessa Anspaugh’s The End of Men; An Ode to Ocean runs June 8-11 at Abrons Arts Center, presented by Joyce Unleashed. Featuring an all-male cast, Anspaugh considers the question: “What does feminist work look like without women?” The End of Men delves into religion and ritual to investigate masculine vulnerability and the dynamics of domination and surrender. Joyce Unleashed also includes premiers by Anna Sperber and Elina Pirinen at New York Live Arts.
LM: Of course now that I’ve seen a run of the work everything I wanted to ask you I no longer care about at all. But I will ask you first about the title. Hanna Rosin reference?
VA: The woman who wrote that book? I suppose I should read that book but I found out about it after I made this piece, so there has been no clear association. I’m sure on some level I was aware of it…have you read it?
Yeah. I think it’s a text that has some self-consciousness about the provocativeness of its title but is interrogating a perception of the diminishment of men as the dominant social group and addressing a general insecurity about the ways gender may or may not be expressed now, which may have nothing to do with your project.
It doesn’t but it could. [Joyce Unleashed curator] Laura Diffenderfer saw a piece I made on the Zenon Dance Company in Minneapolis a year and a half ago that had to do with exorcisms of the voices that build up in the body, and Laura was interested in me possibly restaging that piece with a New York cast. The economics of making dance are real, and I got curious about that — I wondered if I could take something that I researched there, that I found with them, into a new work. Re-casting it with men felt really problematic and weird — the bodies in my work are often queer, or strong women, and an all-male cast felt risky or loaded. I must have heard the title of that book somewhere and I thought, “if I cast it with all men it’s going to be called The End of Men!” That piece from Minneapolis became kind of a ghost reference; there were elements of it that we brought in but the content and context were totally changed by this new group of people. It’s a really audacious title and I liked throwing it out there.
We can decide how serious you are about that.
Yeah. And I really began thinking about the frame of this group of cis men, and how, as a queer woman, I have never needed much from a man, personally, in my life. Around the time of putting this together I was trying to get pregnant and I needed something from a man, so I was really contending with that. Not only do I need something from a man but I could have a male child. And we did [gestures towards Ocean, nursing].
So you got all these men in the room and you had a male child and then what happened?
I really built most of this piece while I was pregnant. There are so many places of entry, I think, I hope, but I will say that I was really expecting kind of a loaded confrontation in terms of me and them. I’m always interested in dealing with power inside of a work and I felt like here I was really bringing myself into that power dynamic, really addressing it, like, “here I am, I’m in charge! How does that make you feel?!” and what I ended up getting was a cast of exquisitely gentle, kind, feminist men. What I found was not a confrontation but a real willingness to be vulnerable and explore their own desires, their own inner kaleidoscope of masculinities. So I made this with them and it was very collaborative, a lot of improvisation, and then some of the old material was infused in, and I finally strung it all together and stepped back and was like, “woah. I LOVE you guys. I LOVE all of you. I was not expecting that! I made something that made me fall in love with these people. So what am I saying? Is that saying anything? Is this a celebration of men?!” But within the frame of having this young child I’m seeing it now as, “here’s all the fucked up things and all the potentially beautiful things that you are stepping into in your place in this lineage of what it might be to be a male person,” if that is who he is. When I talk about the kaleidoscope of masculinity I am also thinking about colonization: colonization of the mind, body, spirit, by the expectations and performance of gender. The expectations of maleness are being exorcised here.
That is very apparent. I saw ways that I’ve observed men interact, riling each other up and talking each other down, dealing with weakness and disguising weakness, ways that “maleness” can be put on and cast off. I also saw a pretty explicit performance of “femaleness” — how are you working with that distinction and/or blurriness?
That’s where it can become really problematic. There is a lot of room for improvisation, and even in the run today there were some things that made me feel like, “mm nope, that isn’t working, we need to talk about that.” But there are moments that are about them trying to harness power through becoming these female objects, and I am interested in playing with those references there but it definitely gets a little bit tricky.
When you see something, now that you’re not that far from opening, that makes you go, “Oo no no no we have to follow up about that” do you feel like there’s a risk of that happening in performance? And is that something you accept?
Yeah, that’s a good thing to understand. When you allow — not allow, encourage — people to find new ways of being in their bodies and new ways of exploring a moment, then you run the risk that it could…
Totally! When red flags come up we have to stop and talk about them but we don’t want to have so many red flags that it makes people feel like they can’t go anywhere. It’s a risk that I take and it feels scary and I’m trying to do it more. In my past works I have had improvised sections that I kept choreographing down the closer we got to performance and by the end there was very little that was improvised. So I’m trying to take that risk and not be afraid. If it goes rogue and something is read the wrong way, then, oh well. My work is read so many different ways I can’t really control it in the first place. It’s easier said than to stomach, but authorship is an interesting question here, because there are also amazing brilliant moments that I had nothing to do with.
There is some language about you directing your cast to “embody intimacies” and then “leaving them to their own devices.” How does that work?
There is some truth to that. Especially at the beginning of the process we did a lot of work with generating intimacy. We did this basic theater exercise of “I want / I need,” have you done that?
Yeah, that is a sure thing. That is a thing that works.
It really does! I think perhaps because of who they are and how we began being together in that intensely intimate way the intimacy was just right there. They made it.
Can you talk about the singing? That ritualistic, gathered section grew in a really surprising way from a formal thing to a wilder thing…
One of the performers does a lot of vocal coaching and training and he was just playing around and warming up in the studio and the others were joining him, and, as I saw that, so many references were there for me. It feels like men in a support group setting, it feels like monks in a sacred ritual, it feels like a secret society, a bathhouse thing came to me, wrestlers…
Which are all things I have never thought I would have access to; those are all spaces that feel unavailable to me.
Exactly. All of these male-owned spaces. I liked how it rode this line of, “oh I know what you’re doing, actually I don’t know where we’re going, this is beautiful, oh wait now you’re off key, are they singing or are they just making sound?” And as it builds I like this religious reference, there’s so much we can talk about there. They are men, they are controlling the world through religion and war, and from that really sacred space comes total fucking abandon and violence and torture. But I’m not trying to write that script. The bleed of various references in that vocalizing section let it build on itself and evolve.
It really feels like a moving target, very hard to locate. All of that comes up and then goes away and I feel like, “I was right I was wrong I was right I was wrong.”
That experience that you described, I want that through the whole thing. It just became such a big part of it; then we’re in choreography and it didn’t make sense to cut the voice off. It’s the same way that dancers cut their faces off from their bodies?
Modern dance face? I find that so weird. It’s just not how we move through the world. Why can’t we still be people?
I just really have a problem with that. And maybe I go too much in the other direction where it’s a lot of looking and seeing and faces but I need there to be a connection between the face and the body and the next level of that is, “where is the voice?”
Can you talk about it being “an ode”?
Ocean is my baby and I made this piece while I was pregnant with him. Now he’s here, and in the same frame of me being in the room with these men, he’s also part of that. I have to say: I feel radically transformed as a human being as I’m sure all new parents do. My sense of identity feels like it just moved over here outside of my body. I’m sure this is so much about being brand new to this, I can’t say this is how it’s going to be forever, nor am I interested in a self-sacrificing narrative of being a mom, but everything feels like it’s for him.
Whether or not you say it in the title, that would be the reality.
I’m just not at the center anymore. And thank god. There’s some real liberation in that.
Is Ocean going to be physically present in the work, as he was today?
Until today I had been thinking about keeping him out of it except for the beginning and the end… you know, he’s a little baby, I just don’t know how he’s going to be. But he was so good and it was pretty funny…
It was pretty funny.
It was pretty funny! I really loved it! I’m open to it, we’ll see what happens.
Did you make something funny on purpose?
I always want there to be a sense of humor in my work, and I think in past works it has been more subtle, like something making fun of itself or being absurd and weird. But this piece feels like it has a lot more room for pure moments of comedy. I didn’t set out to make a comedic work, but…
You have some funny people here.
Really funny. Smart, beautiful, great. It’s refreshing to me to see people who aren’t the usual suspects in the contemporary dance world.
When you see a lot of work do you start to feel like, “are there only five people?”
I’m not into that. There are so many incredible performers, but we can get really myopic. This is the most collaborative work I’ve ever made. The strength of this work comes from the cast, the weakness comes from me. [Laughter]