Dance History According to Drag, Jun 2007

By Selby Schwartz


“A dancer’s life is a realist’s life,” says the woman onstage in a weary, regal voice. Standing in a dramatically pooled spotlight that glitters off her spangled dress and causes great spiky shadows to fall across her cheekbones when she lowers her eyelashes, Martha Graham is instantly recognizable: the high dark bun piled up on her head, the severity with which she holds her shoulders, and that throaty, semi-divine voice pronouncing its truths. She talks about the discipline of the dancer, about being doomed to the life of the artist. She demonstrates her technique, throwing her torso into its tightest arch, and says that every time you arch your back, you must think: I am Joan of Arc. Only Martha Graham could reign upon the stage like this.

However, Martha Graham hasn’t performed since 1969—she died in 1991. The figure onstage is 6’4”, a good 16 inches taller than Martha Graham ever was. And when the famous purple-gray jersey costume of Lamentation stretches over her body, you see that this dancer, this self-proclaimed realist, is not the woman she says she is. She is more Martha than Martha. She may be a dancer and a realist, but she is also a man.

The spotlight intensifies. You can see her teeth shining, the hollows of her collarbones. “The body never lies,” Martha declares imperiously, and sweeps offstage.

The man who performs Martha Graham is a versatile dancer named Richard Move, whose career began with a degree in dance from Virginia Commonwealth University and led to stints with Karole Armitage and Mark Dendy (and through several fabulous years as a go-go dancer in a plexi-glass cage at the Palladium). His version of the Mother of Modern Dance made her debut in 1996 at Mother, a tiny nightclub in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District run by Chi Chi Valenti. The Martha@Mother series went on tour—in San Francisco on March 31st of this year, it was Martha@The JCCSF—and used its cabaret format to bring together Martha Graham’s writings, choreographic excerpts, and archival footage, as well as local guest artists and Richard Move’s talent for impersonation.

“There are moments onstage in the Martha show where I am definitely not myself,” Move says. “I’m filled by her and by what I am doing. I can only recognize that that occurs. Then I come back and I’m myself, a performer.” He either performs her choreography himself, or is accompanied by current Martha Graham Company dancers like Katherine Crockett, who help to conjure up what he describes as “an essence, a distillation of certain aspects of the ballets.”

Richard Move is one of a select group of contemporary performers who use drag in the context of dance in a way that explores the nature of performing itself. Drag is one way of dreaming up an identity for the body that imagines its possibilities, that stretches its physical and visible limits. In a world where real identity politics manifest in brutal ways, and where “extreme realities” are the obsessive performance mode of mass media, “drag can be the most welcoming kind of thing for people,” Move says. “People have forgotten that this comes from ancient theater.” This statement has its own irony: in San Francisco, Martha@ included a performance of “Cave of the Heart,” Martha’s Graham signature piece based on Euripides’ Medea. In Greek drama, the role of the tragic queen was played by a man (as were all roles), so the audience expected Medea to be a man in drag. Martha Graham’s idea of performing Medea herself would have been shocking in classical Greek theater, but Richard Move’s interpretation would have been perfectly “straight.”

Because several theatrical traditions wouldn’t have permitted women as performers onstage—besides ancient Greek drama, there were the “boy actors” of Elizabethan theater in England, the castrato singers in European Baroque opera, stylized female roles in Noh plays and the elaborately feminine onnagata of Kabuki in Japan, and the dan of Chinese opera—cross-dressing for the purpose of theatrical roles is nothing new. Ballet, on the other hand, went through the inverse process, when female danseuses en travesti at the Paris Opera Ballet, cross-dressed as princes, sailors, soldiers, and shepherds, took over a majority of male roles from 1830-1850. The men who “subscribed” as members to the Paris Opera, and who constituted ballet’s main audience, demanded that male roles be danced by women; in fact, they clamored for girls and women to show off their legs by donning tight-fitting men’s costumes. These are all examples of “straight” drag—cross-dressing that is inside the story, invisible to the audience—and something different from modern drag, which tends to be self-consciously funny and parodic. From Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the Marilyn Monroe film Some Like It Hot, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and Mrs. Doubtfire, drag is played as a huge joke.

Drag has made its modern home in clubs, in theaters, and overwhelmingly in films—but less frequently in dance, with a few outstanding exceptions like Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. The Bay Area boasts its own contingent of pioneers in the genre: Joe Goode, the late Ed Mock, steamroller’s Jessilito Bie, Sean Dorsey (whose transgender dance theater is breaking new ground), and Keith Hennessy to name a few. These artists have caught on to what dramaturges and scholars have learned well from history: dance is the obvious medium for questions about the body; its capacity for expression, its ability to be both natural and intensely controlled, its changeable visual identities. Gender identity is not something that you have to say out loud first—usually, it’s something people automatically perceive about you as soon as they see you. But gender identity also accrues to the body in layers, and each layer can be chosen deliberately. (As drag queen RuPaul has famously said about models, “Look, you’re born naked and all the rest is drag.”)

If gender in everyday life is a kind of performance, then gender performance onstage is one of the consummate triumphs of dramatic creation. When you cross-dress in order to perform a role onstage, you are unseating the certainty of the thing people are always calling “a biological fact.” However, most performers don’t think drag is a big deal. Like RuPaul’s supermodels, they are used to make-up, to costumes, to a general state of illusion, where their bodies are mutable items that can be painted like sets. And, recently, gender performance has taken on a new permutation: faux drag. “I’ve always been a kid who played dress-up,” Monique Jenkinson confides. “Climbing trees in grandma’s cocktail dress, that’s me.” Trained in ballet since childhood, Jenkinson went to Bennington College for her degree in dance at a time when she found that the dance community’s “disdain for virtuosity” collided with her own aesthetics. She began making dances, experimenting, performing; she moved to San Francisco; in 1998, she went to see the club drag night called “Trannyshack” for the first time. In 2003, as Fauxnique, she accepted her tiara as the first “faux queen” or RG (real girl) to win the drag queen title Miss Trannyshack. Trannyshack, Jenkinson explains, was “a drag club created by upstart kids who were already post-gender.” Its hostess Heklina adamantly repeats the refrain that “Trannyshack is NOT art,” which liberates its participants to experiment at the very edges of artistic performance.

A series of lovely little bourées on point was the crowning glory of Fauxnique’s winning performance during the Miss Trannyshack pageant (which also included a pair of giant gauzy butterfly wings and an Elton John song). “It’s really about using technique to serve the performance,” Jenkinson says. In fact, she explains, the precision of her ballet training translates directly to a staple of the drag repertoire, the lip synch. “Taking a set of ballet steps—learning the exact port de bras—it’s just like lip synch, getting the breath where it is in the song. There’s a micro-dance in the lip synch.” In other Trannyshack appearances, Fauxnique infuses her performances with a variety of dance histories and traditions, noting that, “as a drag performer, I’m constantly having to subvert the ease of my own femininity. It’s not enough to get up onstage pretending to be a woman.” She did a Halloween butoh-based piece reminiscent of Mary Wigman, and even, she says ruefully, a piece in 1999 in which she dressed up like Maria Callas, “but people said I looked like Martha Graham.” Jenkinson is especially fond of a role she created as a punk Black Swan, set to the Bauhaus song “St. Vitus Dance.” “There was a lot of squawking and pecking, like the Trocks’ Dying Swan. That was when I knew I had to go on point for the Miss Trannyshack Pageant.”

The Trocks—Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—are the royalty of drag in dance, as well as its goodwill ambassadors. On tour 40 weeks a year, the company travels the world bringing beautifully danced classic ballets to stages from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to Bodrum, Turkey. “We’re not a drag show, honey,” prima ballerina Robert Carter said in an interview last year. In fact, each one of the Trocks’ dancers must be capable of performing male as well as female roles, so one tour can take a dancer from the corps de ballet in Swan Lake to playing a prince at Raymonda’s Wedding and back again, several times. Artistic Director Tory Dobrin points out in a recent interview that the Trocks are “not drag in the sense that you’re trying to convince the people that are watching that you’re a woman or trying to emulate a woman, which is what a lot of club drag does. This is a dance company,” he finishes firmly, “not a bunch of guys galumphing around on stage.

Tory Dobrin also emphasizes that the Trocks’ versions of classical ballets are created and performed by men with a heartfelt reverence for ballet history and for its heroines, divas, and legendary prima ballerinas. The comedy of cross-dressed ballerinas as a performance of gender is actually secondary to the performance of virtuosity; it’s funny that these are men in size 12 toe-shoes, but it’s only wonderful because they can dance this well in them. Audiences hover between appreciating the sheer loveliness of the ballets (the fiery precision of Fifi Barkova in Kitri’s variation, the flawless fouettés tossed off by Robert Carter in Paquita) and the uproarious physical comedy of gum-snapping corps de ballet girls, divas whose developpés can cause severe concussions, and daisy-chains that become Gordian knots. The Trocks’ tribute to ballet history is a combination of nostalgia, satire, imaginative reconstruction, camp performance, homage, and pure dedication to an art form.

“Camp is a tender feeling,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1964 “Notes on ‘Camp.'” The Trocks, with their camp aesthetic, seem to say: there is no “straight” history anymore. Most people who come to their shows have never seen a classical ballet company perform Massine’s Gaîté Parisienne, in part because most people are not balletomanes, but also because most big ballet companies don’t keep works like that in repertory. So the history of ballet received by the Trocks’ audiences is a slanted history, a history told with tender irony. Most people who come to see Richard Move have never seen Martha Graham—“of course, in New York, they come out the woodwork to see me do Martha,” he notes wryly—and he himself relies on interviews, archives, and video to bring her spirit and “blood memory,” as she called it, back to life onstage.

The possibility for authentic, original, “straight” dance history is gone, but in its place we have been given a fascinating faux history; a history that loves its subjects but mocks them publicly; a history that knows we have never seen the “real thing.” In this kind of history, bodies do lie about the past, but only so that they can tell us something about the present. In the same essay, Susan Sontag cites the perfect example of the way that the camp aesthetic elevates and adores “character,” the quality of being absolutely and undeniably yourself: “in every move the aging Martha Graham makes she’s being Martha Graham.”

Richard Move has studied every move the aging Martha Graham ever made, but of course he is too young to remember the heyday of her live performances. This line in Susan Sontag’s essay, however, resonates strongly with him.

“Susan!” says Richard Move, instantly nostalgic. “Susan used to come to my shows! She was fabulous.”

This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of In Dance.

Selby Wynn Schwartz is the International Tour Manager/ Project Manager at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a Lecturer at UC Berkeley, and a member of the LEAP faculty. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and is currently working on a book about drag and dance.