From Dress-up to Drag

By Maureen Walsh


Monique Jenkinson, aka Fauxnique, exudes the demeanor of both a fabulous diva and a humble girl-next-door–at once imagining performance as spectacle and sparkle beyond the norm, while methodically crafting personal, intimate artistic studies, displaying the pretty things she holds dear.

As one of the 2012 Irvine Fellows at the de Young museum in San Francisco, Jenkinson is half way through a full year of performance curation and creative cultivation within the walls of that institution. In late April she curated an event held at the de Young; it was an thrilling iteration of their Friday Nights series, brimming with multiple performers, lavish costumes, and a brilliant opportunity for art enthusiasts of all ages to engage with the current Gautier exhibit in an enlivened way.

Jenkinson’s work is picturesque yet intellectually layered, it’s feminine and self-aware, it’s fun, full, flirty, and aesthetically cohesive. To preview the second half of her year at the de Young, and also her participation in this September’s Dance Discourse Project, I chatted with Jenkinson about her unique performance aesthetic, her trajectory as an artist, and how she sees her work contextualized in a visual art based institution.

MW: What sparked this Fellowship and opportunity at the de Young?
MJ: In 2007 they approached me because they needed some fun people to perform at this new Friday nights thing they were then starting. [They] asked me to do something when the Vivian Westwood exhibit opened. I’ve done a handful of pieces since then that have been performed at the Friday nights. Over these couple of years it’s been more than just doing this fun thing for a party, but more me coming in and looking at the work and making work that reflects the visual art work that’s there.

MW: What will the rest of 2012 look like, being at the de Young?
MJ: The fellowship lasts for a year and part of it has included a couple of residency periods in their Kimball Education gallery. I was there for the last 2 weeks of February working on this piece that I just made, or that I feel like I just started to make. And I’m excited that now that I’m past the April event, I can now just go in and spend a little more time in the space in this context of visual art. There are a few videos I’ve been wanting to make. I also realized that even though this fellowship has given me money to realize some projects I want to make happen, it didn’t magically give me more time. I think in September I will take a leave of absence from a few things and just focus and work there and only there.
With all the costumes, makeup, luxury, and over the top visual elements, it seems that it fits really well in a visual art museum.
It’s funny. I think of dance as a visual art–well, it’s a lot of things, dance. I think for some people maybe it isn’t visual, for some there’s an attempt to evoke a [she gestures from the heart outward, takes a deep breath in and slowly out] sen-sa-ti-o-n-al thing. For me the visual has always been important.
I think in a way it’s my reaction against some of my training. My early training was in ballet and then I trained in contemporary/modern at Bennington College, which confronted and dismantled the ballet aesthetic. For me it was ultimately satisfying to come back, to see dance as a visual art, rather than pull it apart and reconstruct it. My strengths are in the visual, as a performer. So there’s this play between the visual art and dance has always been interesting to contextualize my work, and I can’t wait to keep exploring that in the museum in this way.
The piece I’m starting to work on this September is a solo piece, but I’m collaborating with 3 different choreographers. I want to explore the tradition of making a dance just to put it on a dancers’ body. I’m working with these vastly different choreographers: Amy Seiwert, Chris Black, and Miguel Gutierrez. I look forward to investigating with them. Miguel, for instance is very different [from me]–even though we come from similar worlds–because he has a very sensational approach. I’d love to play with the word sensational–to look at the ways that can be used. [Her jazz hands go up around her face, and she punches the words] There’s sensational! [She then places her hands on her upper arms, rubs and in a sultry voice says] Then there’s sensational.

MW: What are your thoughts about dance in museums in general? Is it a trending desire to enliven spaces with performance?
MJ: I think that it is coming from a lot of directions. Definitely the institution of the museum changing. All kinds of institutions have realized that they need to find ways to get future members, that the old donors aren’t going to keep things afloat. New interest means younger members coming from the centers of what’s happening. I think one way to do that is to enliven the space, and produce shows. This is a lot of what the Dance Discourse Project in September is about. It’s fascinating watching a dance audience and museum audience coming together in the same space.
I learned a lot from the Friday Nights event in April, about my expectations and desires for how an audience might behave with a piece, versus how an audience wants to behave with a piece. For example, I’ve found they want to maintain 10 ft of comfortable distance. They want to sit, if at all possible. If they’re in a museum, there’s sort of an engagement v. disengagement. I wanted closer contact somehow. I learned that if you want an audience to behave somehow differently, you have to change their relationship to time and space. You have to really manipulate them.
I think when I made the piece for the Rotunda Dance Series, set in San Francisco’s City Hall grand staircases, there was such a long duration. I explored this one idea for a long time, which invited people to mellow out and experience it the way that they wanted to. The span of that performance gave the viewer ample time to experience it in their own way.
In the April performance, I had all sorts of things happening at different times, and it ended up being just too much happening at once. What I should have done, to gain a closer relationship with the audience in this context, was to have one person do one thing, in a sustained way, for 45 mins. I don’t think the event was wholly unsuccessful, but there were some moments for me, being inside it that it felt a little like chaos. There was a moment when Maryam and I were walking down the hall, doing this simple step-touch-step. And people were walking by saying, “Oooo that’s so cool!” and in my head I was thinking “Damnit! we could have just done lots more of this.”

MW: How have you connected your work in this context?
MJ: I’ve had such great access to that Gautier show, I’ve been through it so many times now and I keep seeing new things. It’s been far more inspiring than I expected it to be. And I’ve had more of a connection to the way he thinks about his work. I mean, he’s a huge machine, but it still comes from a really personal place. His sense of play is great, and for Gautier there’s a lot of personal history that’s right out there. That’s the thing that I have a lot of also, my work is really personal and I try to tie together themes.

MW: Where do the personal moments come out in your work?
MJ: Kind of everywhere. Allowing myself to make work that is concerned with the visual. Making work that’s a lot about what we wear, and how we express ourselves through what we wear; and how what we wear affects how we move and what we do. I’ve always been fascinated with all of that. I love how clothing has shaped history, and how it affects what we do–how clothing changes according to societal needs.

MW: How did you get involved in drag culture?
MJ: Very organically through performing. When you’re in ballet, or theater or performing as a kid, you’re one of the queer kids — whether your sexuality is queer or not, you’re one of the queer kids. And those were always the kids I identified with, those were my friends. My instinct was never to say, “Oh I don’t want to get harassed at bus stops, therefore I won’t stick my hair up with gel.” I don’t know exactly where that comes from, but I’ve always felt comfort in people who just say “We’re flying our freak flag.” Coming to San Francisco, it’s the perfect place to find people to fly your freak flag with. My instinct was never to blend in.
Another thing that I relate to with Gaultier, is a familial introduction to beautiful things. His grandmother was a corsetiere, and he used to dye his grandmother’s hair–she was his sort of playmate and also taught him this trade by example. I was definitely brought up with something similar. For example in my show Faux Real, I identify my real mother as my drag mother. She encouraged me to watch old Bette Davis movies; we’re old movie fans, so any campy old movie I’ve ever seen is recommended by my mother. She put Mommy Dearest in my hands, and Oscar Wilde, and the Diana Vreeland biography. So I had a kind of unknowing camp upbringing at a young age.
Playing dress-up as a kid too! My love of playing dress up is definitely one of the reasons why I’m connected to the drag culture–and attracted to the drag culture.
How it happened literally, was that my friend Kevin Clarke took me out to Trannyshack. At that point, I was being a good little dancer; going to bed at a decent hour and reading books, but he said, ‘Seriously. You should come to this club.’

MW: Do you have a muse?
MJ: I look to clothing and history for inspiration. I feel like I don’t have a muse, and I don’t really have a drag mother, but I definitely have inspirations and icons. I just had the pleasure of writing material for Helen Shumaker, and it was thrilling. She did this one-woman show in the 1980s where she was likened to a drag queen and she wore this intense make-up and it was this confrontational solo woman thing, and very campy in places. So in a sense, I am one of those lucky enough to say that someone whom I admire, who broke ground for me to do the work that I do is now my muse!

Pop Questionnaire Monique Jenkinson
Your favorite virtue: Kindness.
Your secret spot in town: The back patio at Arlequin [Hayes Valley, SF].
You appreciate most in your friends: Humor, gameness, kindness.
Your main fault: An unrealistic relationship with time.
Your idea of heaven: Living near an ocean I could swim in every day.
Someone (or something) you idolize: Cindy Sherman. Diana Vreeland. Oscar Wilde.
What is fabulous to you: Really old ladies dressed up really fancy.
A natural talent you’d like to be gifted with: Punctuality. Toughness. Singular focus.
Something you get obsessed with: Cleaning and organizing my home.
First performance memory: Dancing to Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ in the living room (around 8 years old).
Performing songs from ‘Grease’ with my cousin for the grownups (around 6 or 7 years old).
Your favorite gig: My final show of Faux Real in New Orleans last Fall.
Getting to perform my winning Miss Trannyshack number a second time, for a ton more people in 2008.
Your favorite motto: Life is both too short and too long not to do what you love.
If money is no object, what’s the next place you might travel: Fiji
What events/places might we see you at this summer: The opening of Dance USA, ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival, The Palace of the Legion of Honor, Berlin, & Dusseldorf.
What question do you wish I’d asked: What are you wearing?

Maureen Walsh is Communications Director at Dancers’ Group. She is an avid music consumer, word nerd, aesthete, major league baseball watcher, seamstress, casual foodie, and San Francisco lover.

Maureen Walsh lives in San Francisco and enjoys the city’s craziness and wonder. She spends her time dancing, playing, finding funny things on the internet, giggling, baking, working as a Social Media Strategist, learning to play the bass guitar, surfing, and adventuring.