Kegan Marling isn’t sure which way to go.
Marling, who is creating, performing and directing a dance theater piece that will be shown at CounterPulse in October, is directing Mica Sigourney and Ross Cantor at rehearsal. “Are you boys prepared for total awkwardness?” he asks. “Awkward is serving you, Mica. You’re giving your sexiness to Ross, but Ross, you’re giving your sexiness to the world…” They crank up a Sylvester dance hit and attempt the awkward score before Marling decides it’s not working…it’s too fast…it’s not sexy.
At a later rehearsal the music has changed from Sylvester to Queen. This time the three of them, Marling, Sigourney and Cantor, stand in a triangle formation facing downstage and start the choreography in unison. But then Marling wonders if it’s too safe, too clean? He tries yet another new tack.
This uncertainty, this willingness to change directions is at the center of Marling’s piece, Jump Ship Mid Way. Jump Ship was first developed during a CounterPulse artistic residency in 2010-11. The culmination of a 4-year project, the latest iteration of Jump Ship has weathered changes in direction.
“I really went into this thinking this [version] was going to shape itself into a particular story. But the more I sat with it, the more I felt the nebulousness of all of these weird things that don’t quite make sense is really important in order to share the confusion that I have and that I think a lot of gay men have. It’s complex and it’s messy, and in this work I’m trying to be OK with being messy.”
As an artist myself, I appreciate the effort it takes to be OK with messy. Pressures to please the audience and the funders sometimes influence the creative process and dilute authenticity. When I ask Marling about the value of re-working his piece he tells me it’s been wonderful. “It’s something that I think would really benefit the dance community—more support for the revisiting and deepening of old work.”
I attended a performance of the old work in 2011. I sat with some of the audience onstage on the floor around low platforms, like a Japanese-style restaurant. (I’m happy to hear that the new version preserves the audience-mixed-within-the-space cabaret aspect of the original). Back then Marling worked the platform I was sitting at in a nightclub dancing scene. Other performers were doing similar grinding. I was whooping and throbbing with the music, the energy was contagious. It was a choice seat.
When he first conceived of Jump Ship, Marling was looking at a lot of choices, in particular those he made based on not having guidance from queer adults during his youth. At a recent interview, he talked about coming into adulthood, starting to go to bars and such, and the lack of gay men in their 30’s and 40’s hanging out at these community spaces. Often this absence was because these men were either taking care of their friends who were dying of AIDS, or taking care of themselves. At the same time, some gay men Marling’s age were actively avoiding older generations because of the stigma of AIDS. So there was a lot of learning that didn’t get passed on, certain social norms and social understandings and cultural customs, Marling says.
“Although I was comfortable identifying as gay, I had little understanding of gay culture or history… nor did I think I needed to know it.”
The old work featured assorted avenues of investigation into this learning territory of social and cultural norms, from an homage to gay idol and Queen front-man Freddie Mercury, to Marling’s critical perspective on recreational drug use in the gay community. But the latest Jump Ship has taken a different path. The new version expresses ideas in multiple mediums—from dance, to spoken text, to booklets, to an accompanying exhibit of Marling’s provocative photographs. And where the first version floated many ideas without a single focus, the current investigation is anchored by the theme of playfulness. Playfulness explored in all its messy complex facets.
Marling sees playfulness within the gay community as something that was tampered down in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, with many public campaigns focusing on personal responsibility during the crisis.
Growing up during this, Marling still feels some difficulty engaging with play. As research for this, over the past year Marling has been photographing and talking with men at the Lone Star Saloon, a South-of-Market “bear” bar. (A bear is generally considered a large, hairy man who projects an image of rugged masculinity, though it is a fairly encompassing term for diverse body types.) He received support for this research through the Triangle Lab’s Artist-Investigator Project, one of the key funders who saw value in Jump Ship’s further development. For Marling, the sexual communication at the Lone Star felt evocative of an earlier time in gay culture.