My response to Locus.
The two weeks with Diane Madden learning Trisha Brown’s Locus were incredibly illuminating, reminding me of my lineage and connection to Brown’s work. I have known Diane since the 90s, living in New York and taking classes at Susan Klein and Barbara Mahler’s school in TriBeCa, but most notably when we both were working with The Scottish Ballet in Glasgow. Along with Stanford Makishi, she was reconstructing Trisha’s For MG: The Movie while I was assisting Stephen Petronio with a new dance set to Radiohead called Ride The Beast. It was thrilling to watch the same dancers attune their highly technical skills within and beyond the realms of their classical training.
I recall the way those classical ballet dancers walked and ran. This primal yet revelatory act contained physical traits that conveyed histories of training, philosophies of verticality in the spine, where the gaze began and traveled, and the use of weight and negotiation with gravity. More closely, it represented the multi-layered strata of culture and power that were invoked within the very act of moving through space with velocity and force. As I looked even closer, and through Brown’s extraordinary choreography, I saw gender, sexual orientation, age and experience, ability, class, citizenship status, access and privilege, race, aesthetics, and of course, the opposites or the absence of the very thing it aimed to conceal.
Through dance, I look at power closely especially when there are assumptions embedded within notions of identity that perpetuate misunderstandings or (mis)readings of the body. This came up when the ten artists, selected by Hope Mohr and guest curators, started to learn about Trisha’s work through movement workshops and discussions. I noticed that all of us were coming from very different places and trying to get someplace where we can speak about our experience with Locus with a modicum of certitude about ourselves, our histories and lineages, and ultimately about our identity as we learned about and created a context for this seminal dance within our work. Diane would often begin our sessions by sensing the space with walking and with simple exercises that addressed our relationship to gravity. Speaking for myself, I arrived with assumptions about Brown and noticed that I placed the meaning of Locus within a very complex stew of postmodernist philosophy. I began to feel conflict as I unraveled what this meant, since in effect and through the years, I have embodied movement affinities and adopted compositional vocabularies that inextricably link me to Brown.
I danced with Stephen Petronio from 1991-1998 and 2001-2005. Petronio danced with Brown for seven; he was the first male dancer in her company. When I joined Petronio, I learned and performed Middlesex Gorge, Simulacrum Reels, and Full Half Wrong Plus Laytext Complete, a reimagined version of The Rite of Spring, pulled apart from a collaboration with Michael Clark. During this time, I also saw the company perform Surrender II, a duet with Jeremy Nelson and Petronio and Petronio’s solo, #3, a dance that effectively conjured multiple famous personae that forced him to stand stationary downstage, front and center. Similar to Locus and through a rigorous structure, he was able to find expressivity and freedom inside imposed restrictions.
These formative years created a foundation of my understanding of choreography and the power it can have as a force of rebellion. In a way, Trisha Brown, by way of the Judson Dance Theater – a group that revolutionized the way dance was being created and perceived during the late 1960s and into the 1970s – has a lot to do with this instinct to rebel. They were reclaiming the body from the way it had been treated by ballet and modern dance to represent itself and nothing more. By extension, Brown’s investigations inside the cube in Locus, were reaffirming the body as complete – just as it is – without subscribing to narrative, meaning, or metaphor. Through her work, Brown wanted to learn more about herself and how the choices she made within a structure formulated the ultimate freedom of expression. By imposing spatial constraints, Brown found a way to rebel against her own proclivities and habits. These constraints also enabled her to articulate a movement vocabulary that was formally pure and suggested the infinite possibilities for generating dancemaking.
Formal constraints have the capacity to invigorate creativity, however, they do not function equally for all bodies. More precisely, there is no such thing as pure movement for dancers of color. In my view, it is difficult to separate structural and systemic power from race. Among other intersectional factors (such as age, gender, class, etc.), dancing by brown and black bodies is read differently than dancing by white bodies.
One of the assumptions that postmodern formalism arouses is that any body has the potential to be read as neutral – that there is such a thing as a universally unmarked body. As a dancer and choreographer of color, my body cannot be perceived as pure. My brown body cannot be read the same way as a white body, particularly in a white cube. This conflicted state rose to the surface during the workshops conducted around our learning the methodology of Locus. How was I to respond to this work without commenting on this tension that I felt? How could I highlight the differences my body represented rather than ignoring or erasing them?
In recent days, I have been reflecting on the hierarchical structures that are present in the dance studio and on performance spaces and how choreography can be viewed as a colonizing force. I turn to colonization as a way to map the invisible power structures inherent within dance. Looking at a laboring/performing body is a way to understand how these powers lead to a re-inscription of assumptions, or worse, an egregious erasure of the body’s power to represent culture and identity. One of the faulty assumptions I had about postmodern dance is that it appoints essentially ambiguous conventions about the body – that the body is always free from narrative or metaphor. As I began to develop my response to Locus, I wanted to underscore that which was unambiguous. I wanted to highlight my ‘brown-ness’, the cultural markers that identify me as Filipino, and my queerness. So, with my collaborators, I turned to these elements as the source to generate this piece, Taglish.
Taglish is slang for Tagalog and English collided together. Growing up as a naturalized immigrant with both languages, I was able to communicate fluidly with fellow Filipinos and new American friends. This translates clearly through the body as maneuverability between embodied aesthetic states. As dancers, my partner (Suzette Sagisi) and I are able to slide in and out of dance forms and switch between the vernacular and the highly codified. In this response to Locus, I wanted to convey that we carried multiple dancing traditions within our bodies. To honor our lineage beyond concert dance, we both agreed that we identified with dancing that came from our experiences outside of the studio: from hip-hop culture, club and house dancing, to the voguing balls in Harlem and the piers in New York City, where queens flocked in the late 80s and early 90s to express their rebellion of gender and hetero-normativity.
Suzette and I wanted to represent these dance forms that provided us historical context and meaning. Another thing we shared was our vague knowledge of traditional Filipino folk dances: Binasuan (the candle dance) and Tinikling (the bamboo dance). As Filipino-Americans, could we appropriate traditional Filipino folk dances since we never grew up performing them? Could we collide these dance forms together to reflect the complexities contained within our dancing bodies and the way our brown bodies immediately projected ‘otherness’ within a postmodern performance gaze? These questions formed the basis of my response to Locus.
My longtime musical collaborator, Tim Russell, created a soundscape that provided a backdrop of sonic energies that allowed us to surreptitiously traverse one dance form and physical state to another. He layered rhythms of the Tinikling, with non-melodies, and sounds with silence and text – even borrowing from Alvin Lucier’s well-known sound art piece, I Am Sitting In A Room. We also turned to Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, a novel that depicted Filipino life in the 1950s and was a testament to the Filipino’s attitudes and attempts to become more Westernized. Although fictional, the book also takes a jab at the (1970s) Marcos regime especially at the way the First Lady discusses her shoe collection – referring to Imelda Marcos’ lavish collection of designer shoes. In the book was a quote from President William McKinley’s famous “Address to a Delegation of Methodist Churchmen”, where he openly talks about his opinions on how the fate of the Philippines should be determined by America’s interests. He says, “[T]here was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” We used this speech and layered it onto the sound score to illustrate the fact that here were two Filipino-American dancers performing a response to this American masterwork of postmodern dance.
In Taglish, we blended postmodern dance, hip-hop, house, voguing, historical text, and traditional Filipino folk dances to represent the intersectional elements present in our dancing bodies. It was curious to notice similarities between Trisha Brown’s clear, geometric forms and that of voguing’s adherence to geometric planes. The demarcated lines in the voguer’s arms and torso seem to connote a two-dimensional etching of the body in space to disidentify with gender norms – to ultimately seek freedom within (self)-imposed constraints.
Inside the structured improvisations of the piece, my partner and I often played with switching our performance of gender, namely in the Binasuan, where the female’s arms accented up while the male’s arms were forced and accented downward. It was also apparent that the lines between gender were very fluid and porous, especially in the voguing sections. However, the sections performed repeatedly inside the cube, signified the inconsequential nature of gender. These negotiations were difficult to execute but necessary to include.
In conclusion, I turn to one of the reviews that came out of this experience, from Allan Ulrich who writes, “What binds Gerald Casel’s 'Taglish' to Brown remains a mystery, but the choreographer and Suzette Sagisi provided some of the fleetest dancing of the evening. Casel notes that the piece represents tensions between Filipino and American culture, but his finely crafted mirror duet was satisfying in itself.” His writing misses the mark altogether, even glossing over the tension between Filipino and American culture. He instead focuses on what he deems legible and worthy of affirming: the mirror duet. The fact that he is mystified by my response is not a surprise, however, the fact that his white, male gaze cannot register any of the elements that portrayed voguing embodied in my whirling effeminate gestures, the traditional Filipino folk dance, and the blending of vernacular and postmodern dance underscores his incapacity to include other forms of dance beyond his narrow definition. Ulrich’s response sheds a light on the invisibility of colored people’s culture to mainstream dance criticism that privilege Western and Eurocentric dance forms and unfortunately perpetuates the mechanisms of coloniality. In dance criticism, words, like actions, have power. When critics use (or do not use) words to describe culture beyond white space, they basically ignore and in effect, erase, the culture they think they describe.