2010 Highlight

By Jetta Martin

December 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

AS A READER, discovering an especially evocative and compelling turn of phrase can be transformative. I sit down with certain books and authors repeatedly because I am offered the promise of that experience. As an audience member, a beautifully crafted dance phrase elicits a similar desire in me. I want to return to the place of creation, to that choreographer and company, to be moved and inspired. This February I was lucky enough to attend a performance of Sean Dorsey’s Uncovered: The Diary Project. Before the show I was not familiar with Dorsey’s work. Born female but identifying as a man, Dorsey is the first “out transgender modern dance choreographer.” I left the theater deeply moved. It is very rare to witness the bold, sensitive and human statements found in Uncovered.

The piece follows the story of Lou Sullivan: author, activist and female-to-male transsexual gay man. In the lobby of Dance Mission Theater a multimedia presentation celebrated the life of Sullivan. Uncovered was additionally enriched by selections from Sullivan’s diary as well as Dorsey’s own experiences with gender identification. The piece captivated me with its authenticity. The four masculine moving bodies onstage inhabited each second with truth. Dorsey’s portrayal of Lou Sullivan was especially profound and sensitive. The moment that Dorsey removed his shirt had a powerful impact. By exposing such a gendered site on the body, Dorsey successfully claimed his transgender identity with a deft subtlety. I found such a vulnerable choreographic choice brave and compelling.

As dancers and choreographers, we have an amazing ability through our very bodies, to expose worlds of difference and points of contact. Our art form is an embodied one and, as such, we bring all that we are to the stage. Not only does this make us beautiful, unique and vulnerable; it also makes us powerful. We are able to upset, upend and maybe even reinvent ideas of who we were, who we are, who we are becoming and who we are supposed to be. Dorsey, through an act as simple and powerful as removing his shirt, revealed a personal world with deep social ramifications. Simply put, gender and sexuality are complicated, expressing themselves differently in each individual. None of us neatly fit into the boxes society has prefabricated for us but, as Dorsey and others have shown, we need not stay within them. As performing artists we can bend these restraints, shape them, burst them and dance in the spaces in between.

Watching that performance I felt that I was a witness to bravery. I will continue to be inspired and motivated by Uncovered. The story of Lou Sullivan has not left me, nor has the complexity of the work. As an artist, I was touched by the authentic choreographic nuances and the raw lushness of the performance. I often return to one of the most beautiful images of the night—a single performer embracing another as the second dancer slips through his fingers. This touching, transitory moment was heightened by its aching visibility, even in negative space. The sudden absence, the hole created in the arms, was a compelling metaphor for many experiences of loss. That single motif defines the piece for me, and has lingered until now, almost a year later. I am passionately in love with my craft but I do not always have the confidence to express that love. To see beauty like that, staged but still real, imbued me with a serene confidence in our art form. That evening made me proud to call myself a dancer and choreographer.

This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of In Dance.

Jetta Martin, a performer, choreographer and educator, is a member of Mark Foehringer Dance Project, Natasha Carlitz Dance Ensemble and Push Dance Company. Jetta’s work has been commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora and by the Black Choreographer’s Festival.