Photo by Danny Peck
[ID: Brontez Purnell in 2009. He is wearing white overalls and is shirtless underneath. He has his index finger in his mouth seductively. He’s looking at an orange box placed on the ground.]
I had got a call from the beautiful and stunning Zari Le’on, (whose work and presence I had admired for a decade plus). She said she had read some of my books and got inspired. In her cool Black girl Cali cadence she said to me, “Do you want to come train with me and do Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”?!” I was like, “Wait, holy shit, GIRL, WHAT?!?!?” I am one to NEVER turn down a challenge…shots fired, it was ON.
I had met Le’on some decade before, when she taught a Dunham workshop at Laney College that had COMPLETELY blown me away. I had started my dance journey AT Laney College, as a Dunham student, and ballet student. I had learned under Danny Nguyen, Lynette DeFazio, Lynn Coles, and had got a scholarship to dance with Colette Eloi, danced in her contemporary Haitian company for about 8 years. But it was around the time that I saw Le’on’s Dunham demo, and the Katherine Dunham seminar at Laney, that I was transfixed by the fact of how new it felt. I had only danced with conga drummers. Seeing her connect the tenets of the routine with a single solo electric violin player and two dancers condensed a lot for me aesthetically. I had always thrust my body into dance backed by a pulsating drum beat, at the time made a good part of my money go-go dancing in this band Gravy Train!!! And worked the go-go box at the time at too many underground clubs to recall. What I mean to say is, my body had always acclimated to dance being associated with a very loud noise. This felt eloquent.
I said to Le’on, “Abso-fucking-LOUTELY! But like, you know I’m old and fat now? And haven’t been in a ballet class in 2 years?!” (She said we would work on it).
Now let me be clear, I have always been a spooky Witch boy who LOVES a séance, a dedication, and a conjuring. When I was making “Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of ED MOCK” (my documentary about the late Ed Mock) what I realized was that there is this kind spiritual work in trying to recover a language of the past—it’s like studying a personal form of hieroglyphics—the work always feels like some form of spiritual intervention you are putting on yourself. Certainly not for the weak of heart. But also, “The Rite of Spring” wasn’t just any ballet. It was the rallying call of what the work of dance would be the rest of last century. Nijinsky humping that nymph’s veil on stage said to the world, “I am about to make a ugly thing, very beautiful” OR maybe it said “I’m going to make a beautiful thing, very ugly.” Either way, both statements are important—the key word here: transformation.
Did I also mention that I am one of the most horrible ballet dancers that has ever existed on the face of the planet?
I remember being 26 years-old and a male ballet teacher stopping me in class and said, (while I was at a barre routine), “Child, you are so far b e h i n d the others…how do you EVER expect to dance professionally?!”
Two very STRONG thoughts crossed my mind at the time.
- Who the fuck said I wanted to “dance professionally”?! I was taking ballet cause like, I don’t know, I just wanted to feel pretty. And also…
- I thought to myself, “Am I about to like, traumatize these teenage ballet dancers when I beat this dude’s ass for talking CRAZY to me?” (I went to the dressing room and cried instead.)
Now cut to present day, when I say “fat and old” I don’t mean these as apologetic statements. I just have to reckon with the fact that sometime during quarantine, my knees do a nosedive, and turning 40 changed the landscape of my body. THAT SAID, Le’on had said something to me that sparked so much courage: “You just simply have to come back to class and put the geometry of ballet back in your body.”
THERE. THERE WAS THE THING I NEEDED TO HEAR.
I can’t explain it, but all through my 20s and 30s the physical act of dancing ballet was something I could never quite “feel”—but after a long absence, when I’m at home just playing by myself, a tendu is something I can now finally intellectually and physically connect to my entire hip (it was something I feel like I spent years just muscling through), the subtle invisible line that ballet sets to poetically integrate into one’s body is DEFINITELY THERE. It’s like the years of language is finally catching up to me as my body system seems to go the other way. But I do think all those years of struggle with ballet did this thing: when I said “I took ballet to ‘feel pretty’” it was actually a prayer for my future self—that it taught me how to lift myself gracefully but more so, how to fall with grace.
I think of two versions of this.
The plan is to work with Le’on on a recreation of the original but sometime around next year a Brontez Purnell Dance Company version of “The Rite of Spring” to be set in Paris next October- near fashion week- with costuming by Collin Strata NYC.
Now let me be clear here, I have NO CLUE what I’m doing. There even feels something kind of antagonistic about calling it “a ballet.” In all my movement work I have always worked in a deconstructionist mode of dance. When I started Brontez Purnell Dance Company with Sophia Wang in 2009 we were described as mixing “punk rock subversion with free jazz improvisation” – I say to you with great humility that my branding has always felt both blessing and curse to me, but I digress.
I do think there comes a point, where for a dancer like myself, mounting “The Rite of Spring” is a graduation, or a homecoming of sorts — like a Silver Anniversary of myself starting a journey with dance. I do, as I return to the barre, hold a kind of excitement. Remember: I am from that crunchy granola school of Bay Area dance, that in the mission statement was always “dance is NOT about how you look, but about how you FEEL.” And for this dance what I FEEL like doing is privileging my love and unlearning of a form, the bad knees be damned.