I Just Unraveled Myself: Some Moments By/With/For Ash R.T. Yergens
Ash R.T. Yergens will present new work as a part of Invocation Proclamation Manifesto: Week Three at Gibney Dance, October 5-7, 2017. More information here.
This is a writing about Ash R.T. Yergens. This is a writing about a trans, white, married, eldest-child-of-four, American artist from Minnesota who, in their words, is “a byproduct of growing up on tater tots and WWE SmackDown.” This is a writing about dancing identities and boundless gender offerings. This is a writing about your “queer dance” not actually being “yours.” This is a writing that will fuck with pronouns, because Ash told me to (okay, Ash said “have fun,” but I knew what that really meant).
This is a writing on how Ash and I met in person after I cold-call-Facebook-messaged him in March, but had many run-ins with their work, their online persona, and their real-life self numerous times after that.
This is a writing about that one time I ugly-laughed for minutes on end when I saw his work at Brooklyn Arts Exchange in February. He wasn’t even in the work; he wasn’t even in the building. This is a writing on how struck I am by this video Ash posted on his website, but I have never quite found the words to tell them why or how the tender, stage mom side of me comes out when I watch it. This is a writing about a cis-female artist (me, FYI) crafting words admirably, scrupulously, about a trans artist. We do not speak for each other (ever), but to each other (always).
This is a writing about an artist who is generous to us, necessary to us. Okay, yes, I am speaking for all of us.
There’s no formulaic path to follow when it comes to writing or being a dancer or making friends (or many other things, I suppose), thank G*ddess.
I was first struck by the work of Ash during a Fresh Tracks performance at New York Live Arts in December 2016. And again at the Upstart Festival at Brooklyn Arts Exchange in February 2017. And again at Movement Research at the Judson Church in April 2017.
Each time, Ash presented distinct works. All dealt with the messiness of identity, the remnants of persona, in highly energetic, highly joyous ways.
And, something about construction. A construction that hasn’t fully figured itself out yet. A necessarily incomplete construction – haphazard, really, like the scaffolding was laid in a rush or the paint hasn’t quite had the time to dry because of a carelessness with time or a sudden humidity.
I met Ash in March 2017 at a cafe in Brooklyn. The meeting felt somewhere between a blind date and a public radio interview: somewhat formal, a little nervous, and an anxious excitement that made for a healthy, wide-ranging conversation.
In that conversation, we spoke a lot about this idea of construction – an idea that is so relevant to the work itself, but also the characters and narratives exposed by it. “There’s something to me that’s really exciting right now to make work that’s curious enough that people want to jump into the holes and fill them,” Ash said.
“There’s also work that creates a lot of holes where people are like, I am not actually going to do the work.”
Right… It takes work to build something sturdy.
Ash tells me they grew up as she in Apple Valley, Minnesota. I shouldn’t be surprised that there is a such thing as “Apple Valley, Minnesota.” He describes it as a place that works hard to maintain its facade as a progressive, city-like suburb of Minneapolis. In reality, it’s a fairly rural area that is surrounded by what Ash deems “rural mindsets.” It’s there that Ash was exposed to the freedom of performance. It is also where she learned, quickly, the strategies for sharing stories. Ash describes adolescent Ash as an over-sharer, but one who had an acute awareness of when these stories went too far. If they noticed someone was uncomfortable with particular truths, they could subvert or embellish or exaggerate as needed; a constant process of making others feel comfortable when you are figuring out how to do the same for yourself.
Ash graduated from St. Olaf college in 2012, where he met his now-wife, Molly Yergens, who was teaching at a boarding school nearby. They got married the summer before his senior year.
Shortly after, Molly stayed behind as Ash made the decision to move to NYC after a job offer from DanceMotion USA, a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State that works in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music to produce American dance artists as cultural ambassadors abroad. Ash lived alone in what he deems a “bachelor pad,” which is hilarious for many reasons, the least of which is the fact that, at that point, they were already married. “I just did things in the wrong order,” he remembers and laughs.
This was the landscape in which Ash first laid out his coming out as trans. Suddenly, in NYC, a full time job, without his partner, without a clear connection to dance or dance-making. “I don’t think it would have happened [the way it did] if I hadn’t had so much time to deal with myself,” they remember.
There are many narratives we tend to absorb as young artists. One of them involves a collection of hierarchies: social, economic, professional, and otherwise. During our chat, Ash recounts a story about the first time they met Larissa and Jon Velez-Jackson AKA Yackez after a shared bill showing at Dixon Place. One of their first performances of their own work in NYC, Ash was feeling understandably shy, intimidated even, of the seasoned Yackez duo, so beloved and so natural in their campy stage antics they seem to defy what it means to perform absurdity at all times.
After the show, Molly, Ash’s wife who is not fazed by the mirage of social convention in the performance world, accepts an invite by Larissa and Jon to go to the beach together later that week. Ash is reminded, as we all are, that these hierarchies actually don’t have to exist if we don’t want them to. They are just stories we tell ourselves.
I thought it important to bring this story up here. I related to Ash’s thought process. But, there was something larger at play. There was an invitation. And, for a young artist coming into their own, that invitation is huge. It’s permission. It’s generous. It’s respectful. It’s a way of saying that there is space for you – for us – to belong somewhere. That somewhere is huge, special, crucial.
“Kudos to them for realizing how important it is to be intergenerational,” he says.
Viewing Ash’s work is like excitedly exploring a new city block: anxiously anticipating what’s around the corner, unsure of what sly act of humor or product placement may come your way. There is an unapologetic approach toward the melding of references, aesthetics, performative boundaries, as if those distinctions only existed in order to be entirely torn apart (do they not?). It is a boiling hot mess, bubbling up and spilling over, that reveals pop culture, postmodern dance, and certain colorful corners of the Internet-machine as the materiality of humanity. At the risk of sounding like a poorly-maintained marketing department: it is all of this and so much more.
During a performance of Tra(n)sh as a part of this year’s Fresh Tracks Residency performances at New York Live Arts, Ash introduces himself (or a version thereof) to the audience: “It’s an honor to be your trans performer this evening.”
What ensues is a mess of cookies, crying, and an entire childhood’s worth of stuffed animals that manages to engulf its audience in an interrogation of trans bodies in performance. All of Ash’s performances cogently build up personas and paradigms in order to then chip away at their edges. As they say: “I am the one who is self-destructing as I am trying to construct.”
A few months after the Fresh Tracks performances, I saw a different exercise in this act of (doomed) construction. Carlo Antonio Villanueva as Ashley R.T. Yergens as Carlo Antonio Villanueva as Ashley R.T. Yergens had its premiere at the Upstart Festival at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. Though Ash is very much a part of the piece – its title, contents, and choreographic tropes are distinctly Ash – he was not present for the performance. In fact, Carlo begins the piece by explaining that Ash could not be present that evening because of a rehearsal conflict, which, for all intents and purposes, seemed true enough. Carlo, instead, took it upon himself to reconstruct a simple dance learned from Ash. Donning a colorful windbreaker, subtle hip swings, and pauses for audience interaction, including a flirty shout to his boyfriend in the audience, Carlo was clear in the moments in which he was retaining the Ash persona and when he was shedding it. Carlo was Carlo, sure, but I was also very aware of how Carlo was playing inside the container of Ash.
We, as audience, became aware that the ghost of Ash looms strong. And, I, as myself, became aware of the infinite possibilities inside this structure: who else could dare try to “be” Ash? How would others play inside this container?
“Performance that is self-destructing as I am self-constructing,” he says. Oh, I exhale.
Something about me: I started writing this piece as a love letter to an artist. Because, being in love with artists and art-making in our current world seems like the only way my mind can preoccupy itself with radical hope, or something.
But, this isn’t about me. No.
Ash uses the Memo app on his iPhone to record random statements, anecdotes, things that were said to him that he’s struck by but doesn’t understand why. Especially things he feels complicated about. Complication is big.
Fast forward to April at Judson Memorial Church. Ash half-laments: “I killed her. Not literally, but metaphorically,” at the sight of a supine Sarah Gibbons in the middle of the stage (church) space. Sarah is a vision of angelic, haunting beauty. Ash looms over her – literally and figuratively – with a monologue that is both curious and insidious. We are in a church, after all, where speaking aloud morphs into sermon rather quickly.
The work, titled An Ongoing Trans Meltdown: Part of Your *Insert Earth Globes Emoji* (excerpt), operates within the same bold joy I’ve come to appreciate in the vibrations of Ash’s work. Even when he tells us things like he is summoning his “white cis lady spirit” to make peace with unrequited love or wonders aloud if he is a misogynist because he so desperately wanted to kill this woman inside of him. As a trans man, Ash contends with the idea (or reality?) that he is now afforded a degree of male privilege, a realization that precipitates the death of this female body. What results is a complex rendering of “female” behavior – tropes of a failure recur in unpacking what it even means to try, to be, to fail at “being” a queer woman, a straight women, and a trans woman.
I remember, again: “Performance that is self-destructing as I am self-constructing.” Oh.
“You can be queer and make some cis-hetero work. To say that you can fully undo that…well, you’re not a magician,” Ash says of the forces constantly acting upon (and against) the way “queer” dance exists on stage, in curatorial statements, in our respective dance worlds. We both acknowledge that predominant narratives of the world – operating from the strict benchmark of white, cis, hetero, male – are acting upon this all the time. No one is actively exempt from these influences (read: the patriarchy) and how they play out in our work, on our stages, in our lives.
“For me, as a trans person, how can I question gender in this deep way?” Ash continues. “But, how much have I allowed myself to build, rediscover, and undo rather than knowing everything?”
During our conversation, I am piecing together my central intrigue with Ash’s work. Ash is naming something – an identity marker, an idea, a question, a person, a color – before the audience has the chance to quite figure it out. With a wink and a nod, the process of the performance is the spirited act of Ash constantly winking and nodding at us, even if that means we are sitting in confusion or discontent. Sure, that confusion or discontent can emerge as a belly laugh or a sigh, or sometimes a pang of heartache or déjà vu, but those connective threads bring us closer to becoming aware of the very real body in front of us, who is being very real about their body, asking you to be real about yours.
It recalls the dissonant monologue Ash performs in Tra(n)sh, where they explain what it means to make the stage a “safe space.” We see this attempted, explored, excavated to an exhausting extent. He reminds me that those who are charged with enacting the notion of “safe space,” i.e. artists, are often the least interested in actually talking about what this means. Who is assuming we need a safe space and what, exactly, does that look like?
“I am a white trans person, who, for the most part, has white male privilege. By me anointing [the stage] a safe space, it’s a safe space,” Ash explains.
“…that’s fucked up,” he sighs.
Ash: “Queerness, to me, is all about holding contradicting truths. The moment it becomes legible, it becomes something else.”
Ash (after a short pause and small smile): “That doesn’t mean it’s formless. It just means you can never hold it down.”
Something about Ash: Ash is an artist making necessary work at a time, in a culture, in a world that is attempting to overthrow the necessity of art-making all together. And the necessity of trans bodies making that art. And the necessity of trans bodies, period.
Well, fuck that. There’s so much more to say. Ash gives me hope that there are also so many ways to say it.
Thank you, Ash.
Support Ash’s work and keep up with everything else at artyergens.com.