Performing Precarity: Young Boy Dancing Group at Pageant

Photo by Sam Max

Kind of like a Black Friday sale on valium, a drowsy but nonetheless eager line forms in the dim stairwell leading up to Pageant on Sunday evening. The narrow studio-apartment-turned-experimental-performance-hang in East Williamsburg has been hosting its founding collective’s work since its opening less than a year ago, and has steadily expanded its programming diet as attendance has grown. Over the last several months, Pageant has quickly garnered a reputation in the DIY scene for hosting one of the more exciting curatorial visions post-‘quarantine,’ with a focus on young, raw, collectively-charged, formally compelling dance and performance art. Even when the act feels premature or half-baked, it’s all incredibly fresh and creative, and more than likely inspiring.

It’s eight p.m. and it’s been raining all day, and the sun’s barely come out. On the dark stairs, we’re scrolling and chatting about ordinary things, saying hi to the usual crowd. And then, a pressure valve releases, and the line funnels into the space. A dance is already in motion, but it feels more like the abandoned aftermath of a party. Two figures, half-undressed in rags and mismatched kitten heels, activate the entire length of the room. Their full-throttle contact improv resembles the kind of uninhibited attempt to get each other off that happens only after everyone else has gone home. The two performers spread each other’s thighs, slam each other into the floor and walls, and cling to each other for dear life.

No one knows where to sit. Some audience members think they have it figured out, posting up on a couch in the back. But before long, the horny duo careens into the furniture, continuing their sequence on the audience’s laps. This blurring of the line between performer and spectator is a recurring motif for Young Boy Dancing Group, who tends to let us know that no one will be exactly safe in a state of passivity. Or rather, it will be impossible for any of us to disappear. A long white line of bright LED darts overhead from the back of the room to the front, relentlessly illuminating every corner of the space, including the audience. There will be no lighting cues. We’re meant to look at what’s in front of us — precisely unshaped by melodrama. It’s about the bodies, and about each other.

A guided, ensemble-driven improvisation, deeply devoted to testing the limits of the human form, and sharply guided by changes in the digital soundtrack (which articulates shifts in physical prompts or tasks within the dance) defines Young Boy Dancing Group’s performance. Chapters include: devastating rhythmic gymnastics with a tattered string on a rod, slip-n-slide baby oil rope pull, wedgie olympics, and what I’ll call ‘failure cheerleading,’ wherein the group attempts to make a supportive pyramid or group sculpture, that only collapses basically as soon as it comes together. Throughout, they press their naked bodies and faces against the floor, imprinting themselves in the wet sidewalk residue tracked in by the audience at the start.

It gets wetter. By the end of the show, the floor is completely drenched in water, sweat, baby oil, other fluids. The cast has stripped. An hour ago, we entered what felt like the aftermath of something, but by staying with the aftermath, inevitably tunneled toward a new submarine dimension: a definitively queer deep scattering layer.

What’s so remarkable about Young Boy Dancing Group is the performers’ unanimous commitment to their private interior fantasies, for the most part visually withheld from the audience. The group performs their tasks in a completely committed, unsentimental way, and yet the potential for injury, at basically every juncture, is extremely high. Thrown about and clattering to the floor repeatedly, they all go on as though the choreography is a fact of life, without any expectation that they’d be rewarded for navigating such uncertainty. Beckett comes to mind. The discomfort of navigating precarity is not merely a state of being, but more truthfully, a continuous fact of life.

In Colorado there’s another shooting. At this point these occurrences are so consistent, I no longer experience loss. Instead, I feel more at a loss for how to process this particular kind of loss. When someone shoots up a gay nightclub, or sets fire to a dance space that centers trans bodies, it used to feel personal. Now I feel nothing. A friend texts me, “Grieving on the Internet is so weird.” They are someone who just lost their father, but they’re referring to Colorado. I agree with them. “We’ve had enough of the Internet today.” It’s almost like, before I’ve given myself a chance to understand the event, or my relationship to it, the event has already been taken and beaten, overexposed, and blown out in our memories. Tragedy evaporates into headlines, memes, square slides, regurgitations of square slides, quips, takes, comments, likes, thoughts, prayers. Scrolling in a dark stairwell.

Toward the end of the dance I turn around and see my friend sobbing. She says to me, through tears, “Sorry. They’re all just so fucking beautiful.” I touch her elbow.

Maybe it’s something about watching the dancers’ bodies rise and fall, stuck on repeat. They end the dance lying on the ground, their systems crazed and breathless, but still. In their work, I experience Young Boy Dancing Group as hovering between life and death. The choreography sustains suspension between a quivering, levitating ecstasy of the body and spirit, and the inevitable silence of death. None of it is easy, but we do it anyway, and the best we can ask for is a collective ritual, maybe in the form of a dance, that makes meaning of it all.

In this way Young Boy Dancing Group’s language is just like life. It’s as devastated as it is celebratory. The dance is something to be moved through, despite the constant threat of collapse.

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