Intersections: Sex and Performance in the Bay Area

By Tessa Wills

October 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

THIS IS WHAT I WANT (TIWIW) is an annual live performance festival in San Francisco about desire. The festival has developed into the focus point for a field of activity where sexual practice intersects with performance practice. It is situated solidly in the community here, supported by a network of artists and production houses such as CounterPULSE, SomARTS, THEOFFCENTER and The Garage. The performances, writing and portraits of the festival provide multiple entry points to investigate the practice of revealing and empowering desire and how erotics can fuel performance. I performed in the festival in 2011—when it was directed by founder Jesse Hewitt—and I served as artistic director in 2012 and 2013.

Through the practice of this field, I’ve come to believe that to say what you want can be a formational (and vulnerable) act. It has a relationship to identity in private and public that has both personal and social significance. It can confound expectations (both your own and others’) as it creates new ones: undoing, writing and rewriting assumptions on many levels. It is an activity motivated with promise, passion and necessity. And when it’s real, it’s often a risk.

While preparing for THIS IS WHAT I WANT 2013, I was also co-editing the final issue of a British publication called Dance Theatre Journal with my colleague Doran George. It is a journal for academics and dance/performance lovers that has run for 25 years, published by The Laban Centre.

I decided to dedicate the final issue to THIS IS WHAT I WANT—and the themes that the festival brings up around sex and performance—by commissioning participating festival artists to contribute. They generated striking content: oral histories contextualizing critical influences on dance and performance in the Bay Area, comparisons of the Bay Area with Europe, the influence of drag on experimental performance, how sexual somatics or erotics inform the process or product of the work itself, a peek into an experiential body-based approach to creating work about desire, and pieces illuminating Bay Area artists’ performances and practice. The journal reveals something about the environment we as California artists thrive in, and gives context to how we come to make work.

In order to ‘bring all this knowledge home’ and develop the conversation with you, dear reader, on the 16th of October, CounterPULSE will host a Dance Discourse Project (co-presented by Dancers’ Group with curator of the DDP program, Mary Armentrout) exploring this emerging field. Some of the artists will join us in discussing their work and how it sits within the intersection of sex and performance practices. Leading up to the event, we will release articles from the journal online.

The contributions to the journal are introduced below. For the purposes of illuminating the defining questions that come up consistently during THIS IS WHAT I WANT, I have categorized them under thematic threads I see as curator.

Performance pieces which consider desire as a socio-political force (What ways does desire intersect with the economy? Does integral desire confound capitalism? How does privilege affect our experience of desire? How can we manage the significance of our bodies and the values that are projected into/away from them?). Chase Joynt offers his Man Lib; in a format you can play through the Journal, where the connection between names and actions disintegrates into fun, surreal, crisp reflection of the power of naming body parts. Monique Jenkinson (AKA Fauxnique) writes about how ‘The Gays’ taught her to love the gaze, and tells us what its like being a faux queen and performer in San Francisco. Diamanda Kallas is a ‘drag queen monster’ who contributed a self portrait series representing the height of the fresh wave of drag in San Francisco and how it intersects with raw identity. I, (Tessa Wills) write more about how This Is What [YOU] Want, (a piece I made with a cast of 35 which culminates in a 20 minute one on one exchange with a sex worker) turned out.

Rupturing the line between private and public in performance (Where is a generative space between internal and external worlds in these performances? What happens if we disrupt these private and public boundaries, or stage the disruption of them?) Rafael Esparza’s images and text in the journal reference his work in TIWIW, which reflected upon his negotiation of his Mexican cultural heritage of dominant Machismo and his queerness. Minax is a hands on domina and kink educator with a theatre background who writes about her role in society: psychic waste management for the masses through private theater. Mica Sigourney’s performance all this love… was ‘reverse prostitution’ where he tried to sell dates with himself to the audience. In a piece I wrote with Mica, I reveal my complicated relationship with him as someone who hoped for a date (customer) and someone who presented him (artistic director / pimp of sorts).

Investigation of radical sex as fertilization of/inspiration for/sustenance of the (performative) body (How are sexual somatics and the embodied experience of desire informing performers’ bodies and their practice?) Annie Danger, a fierce, ravenous trans women from New Mexico living in the Bay Area 12 years strong shares the classic ‘TIWIW’ piece from 2011: The Church of the Holy Fuck; an unexpectedly moving queer ‘mass’ (“more of a *heft* really…”) about the transformative power of sweet, sweet sex. Sara Kraft shares her 2012 festival piece The Truth ++, about relationships with yourself, with other and with anything, reflecting on how straight desire fits into a queer festival.

Historic/geographic contextualization (What is the history of the intersection of radical sex and radical performance in the Bay Area? What are comparative scenes in other places?) Keith Hennessey traces a history of sex and performance in the Bay Area especially through 848 Community Space. Enjoy Annie Sprinkle, the godmother of sex and performance in the Bay getting revelatory about her history and inspirations. Carol Queen introduces us to the Centre for Sex and Culture, which she runs, and writes about the TIWIW symposium, where generations of sex pioneers and artists were in dialogue. Dino Dinko, an LA curator, contextualizes West Coast performance. Jesse Hewit tells his history of the festival. And Felix Ruckert has written for this journal about his experience of creating the training and presentation space “Schwelle 7” in Berlin.

I offer you two insights from this precious process of recording oral histories of the intersection of radical sex and radical performance:

Firstly, an observation about how queering sex scenes historically fertilized this performance field: I love the mythical stories of when cis-gendered1 sex positive women, searching for a place for exploration (perhaps having had their pro sex/pro porn activities excluded from many spaces by radical feminists in that moment) became involved with gay male sex scenes. Many community elders mythologize a moment when female identified people knocked loudly on the bathhouse/club doors and demanded to be let in. Annie Sprinkle, Cleo Dubois, Carol Queen, Barbara Carellas and other sex pioneers all have powerful versions of this same story.

Simultaneously, practices such as holotropic breathwork, tantra and piercing clearly influence this performance world. There is a link between the queering of the gay bathhouse and an understanding of desire and sexuality as a force applicable in many contexts. The insistent knock on the bathhouse door fertilized an expansion of understanding of radical sex. As well as celebrating these practices as a marker and affirmation of Gay Male experience, the practices became widely understood as human somatic experiences that were relevant and applicable to diverse fields by pioneering bodies. And so we find an emergence of the influence of sexual somatics in this performance scene.

Secondly, a note about the current nature of the field itself: it’s become clear that the performance context we are in now is emerging, fragmented from a post-plague retreat which happened at the end of the 90s. The performance scene became quieter at the end of the 90s when the community retreated to lick its wounds from the ravage of the years when there was less effective drug therapy for HIV/AIDS. Benefitting from a thrashed out history of playing with sex, fresh queer performance is now fertilizing at the intersection of sexuality and performance. We are working with established cultural freedoms and celebrations. Staging sex or sexuality as an end in itself or as a political revelation is not the main drive of a piece, and we are not necessarily working with sexuality as a force that craves liberation, because to some extent that is achieved. Perhaps we don’t all believe sex is a positive force. While I am not documenting a unified scene (there is no cohesive lineage here) in our contemporary moment, THIS IS WHAT I WANT crystallizes something of unique Bay Area ideology and sophistication around sexuality and somatics.

It’s a fertile field. It’s emerging. It wants to play with you.

Dance Discourse Project #17: Sex and Performance in the Bay Area will take place on Wed, Oct 16, 7:30pm at CounterPULSE. Articles will be released on

1. A term for someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth.

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of In Dance.

Tessa Wills is a Live Artist working in San Francisco. Aside from the relentless pull of desire, her current practice is inspired by hermits and professional mourning.