An Old Archetype of Lonesomeness, Anew

Photo by Jon Burkland

I show up to the aluminum foil-laden lair of JACK dripping with weather. Before I can even take off my coat, a performer in a sequined top and cowboy hat locks eyes with me. The figure poses with bravado and sweet talks as I drop into the space. I’m first asked to choose a white, black, or straw hat. Then, as if I’ve taken a hallucinatory pill in the form of costume headwear, I somehow end up in a tipi with Agosto Machado (one of the performers) watching soft-core pornography. Though a piece of my brain understands this encounter as an orchestrated initiation of sorts, I want to surrender and live in the moment. My analytical brain switches off, and the lines of life blur like a vivid Gouache painting. “Oh, I can’t watch this part, I’m too old!” Agosto’s voice sizzles from the ether as the erotic video escalates before my eyes. When I get up to leave our secret hiding place, Agosto coos: “But you, you’re young, maybe you’re used to stuff like this.”

The tension between young and old queer life feels particularly central to Pioneers Go East Collective’s COWBOYSCOWGIRLS (sagittarius). Voice recordings of Agosto play beneath some of the piece’s physical score. He recalls Stonewall. He recalls Sylvia Rivera. He recalls The Gay Liberation Movement. I think I even hear Keith Haring namedropped at the performance’s end. Agosto’s personal histories are enrapturing, but his recorded stories feel most alive when in direct juxtaposition to the younger performers’ personal accounts of lust, love, dating, and intimacy. When the tension between young and old feels tightest, the performance shimmers.

What ensues over this colorful hour is a parade of old Western tropes, deconstructed anew. Some are manhandled and hoisted up, some slammed to the floor beneath a boot, and others gently dismantled by soft voices. One performer talks about the nuanced Sapphic lustiness of horseback riding on the open range. Another performer gives a particularly moving account of navigating gay dating life with a ‘horseback riding injury.’ As the piece progresses, the highly personal contemporary stories overtake the archetypal and metaphorical, and the tropes as a framework become obsolete. We eventually spend less time on saddles and hats, and more time on trying to get inside that frictional feeling of being pressed into a hookup’s smelly, hairy crotch while he calls you “pretty.”

Ultimately, the group harnesses a very successful experience that’s equal parts wondrous and strange, if not sometimes unrefined and raw. Hao Bai’s striking sound design is a definitive star, occupying in the miraculous liminal space between hoedown jam and nightclub bop. The video design, too, is special. Projections are hardly as big as a human torso, and often the poetic up-cycled video footage is nested between a performer’s naked shoulder blades. These projections, like the piece at large, is a strong gesture about collective queer yearning on a deeply microcosmic, personal level. The large, lofty themes at play do in fact resonate quietly within the human ribcage.

As a self-proclaimed cowgirl finishes up her song, I find myself considering the elasticity of my own queer identity. For a wincing moment, I stroke my beard, and begin to wonder whether I am lonely or free.


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