Among the many cultural offerings happening on December 10 in the Bay Area, two events, although non-related, share thematic intersections. One is the opening of Gender in Translation, a multidisciplinary series of events dedicated to investigating the notion of gender in the social sciences, philosophy, and artistic fields. American philosopher Judith Butler and French sociologist Eric Fassin are two of the thinkers involved in this conversation that spans between December 2015 and the fall of 2016, at institutions such as UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, the San Francisco Art Institute and ODC.
December 10 is also the premiere of James Graham’s Homeroom, an evening-length duet which is the culmination of a three-year project in which Graham and long-time dance partner Sebastian Grubb have been exploring male relationships, masculinity and human connection. Although not part of the Gender in Translation program, Homeroom touches upon gender issues by questioning how masculinity is portrayed in our culture and how performance can subvert traditional representations of maleness. In the piece that opens next week at ODC, Graham and Grubb revisit We Would Sit Together in Homeroom (2014) and Michael and Roland (2015), which have been slightly modified in order to segue into a third duet which they recently completed.
Graham’s three-year investigation is also reminiscent of art works that concentrate on a specific group of individuals observed over time. Recent notable examples include the work of photographer Nicholas Nixon who photographed the Brown sisters every year for forty years or filmmaker Richard Linklater who shot the cast of his epic Boyhood on a regular basis between 2002 and 2013. These works address the marks that time imprints on the body as well as the emotional and psychological evolution of its characters and narrative. Although Homeroom’s research covers a time span much shorter than Nixon’s or Linklater’s works, it features the same two individuals revisiting past gestures and performing new ones. Those who have seen the first two inceptions of the project will certainly appreciate how the performers’ artistic relationship has developed and deepened over the past three years.
Graham and I sat together last week to talk about the piece.
Marie Tollon: We Would Sit Together in Homeroom (2014) was the first duet you choreographed and performed with Sebastian. Did you have in mind then that it would become the first inception of a three-year project?
James Graham: Not at all. I knew I wanted to work with Sebastian. But the original idea was to do a small piece, something short. We made the first duet in a month [beginning in December 2013]. I enjoyed the process and was proud of what we made. I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to make a second piece, but by then, I had the intention of making a series of three and presenting them together as an evening.
MT: The first two duets appeared within the context of an evening with other choreographers’ work. Can you talk about revisiting these two pieces, creating a third one and combining them into an evening-length work?
JG: There are many compositional considerations. Each section has a beginning and an ending. But if we present them as one piece, one evening, you don’t need a beginning or an ending in the middle of that evening-length work. So, I have had to rethink or rework this material so the experience is one piece and not three separate pieces.
It’s also interesting to honor the fact that the first section was made and presented two years ago, and the second a year ago. Some of the scores would be very different if we did them now; our relationship has changed and evolved, my sensibility as a choreographer has shifted.
Is the work archived and set, or is it alive and changing? I think it has to be a bit of both, but leaning towards the later. Our strength is being fresh and present with each other, listening and interacting; it is not as interesting to me to simply recreate the choreography of what we did two years ago. These live presentations were a part of the development of this work that we continue today.
The first duet was the most personal. It’s about me and Sebastian: how we are friends, what we think of each other, how we move and support each other. The second one is about power and control; the roles that we inhabit as choreographer and dancer, as makers and artists, as animals. And the newest section is more general or inclusive. It is about the roles that men inhabit as uncles/nephews, best friends, teammates, lovers, frat brothers, etc… We move in and out of these different roles and spaces, and explore how men accept these roles of behavior or not.
I’m interested in how men interact, how men exist, and how some of it is good, some not so good. I’m interested in how gay men and straight men can learn from each other and love each other. I’m interested in the difference between sexuality and sensuality. I’m interested in the way men are raised, how women raise men, how men raise men. I’m interested in how we might get rid of talking about men as being “men”; how does talking about masculinity and maleness become a self-perpetuating trap, reinforcing the very notions we seek to disassemble? Do we/I contribute to this dialogue hoping to offer a varied point of view, but risk contributing to the stereotype and expectations of male roles in our culture? I’m interested in how two humans connect, are real and honest, see and honor each other. This is the most difficult, beautiful and profound thing to me.
MT: To come back to the question about masculinity as a trap, what are the ways in which you have been able, through movement and/or text, to address stereotypes often associated with masculinity such as power or heroism, and subvert them?
JG: We subvert the hell out of it! It’s not interesting to me to try to flip all the obvious masculine stereotypes that we can think of. Rather, we explore some of the ideas of being a man that are interesting to us.
I think seeing two men on stage supporting each other physically, touching, loving each other, having fun together is subversive itself. The first moment we began this process up until now during our premiere, we have been operating inside of a subversive landscape. Men don’t dance. Men don’t touch. Men don’t question. Men don’t explore what it means to be a man. It’s all bullocks, and it’s a story we -our culture- agree on. However, when I walk among the greater population, I know that being embodied and touching another body, especially male, is subversive in our culture. Owning your [male] body on stage is a powerful act, doing that with another male body ups the ante.
I also believe, and have seen in the development of this work, that whatever I do, as a male-bodied person, is masculine. Or that at the very least a male has done the act. So there is no ideal male or masculine behavior. The definition of maleness is not the birthright for only muscular men, or straight men, or big-dicked men, or white men, or men with 20/20 vision or whatever. Any version of male could equally claim maleness, man, or masculine.
What I love about humans is what I love about good work (choreography). We are complex, words often fail us, definitions do not seem quite right… there is ambivalence or confusion, doublethink, and a lack of clear answers about human existence. Also, this way of feeling…How can I feel short and tall at the same time?! The complexity and dualities are what is interesting to me about humans and inside of choreography.
MT: Who are your main artistic influences?
JG: Joe Goode has been a huge influence. I’ve worked with him on and off for the past ten years. I’ve always deeply admired his ability to craft a world and/or characters that easily transition between text and song, and movement.
Definitely Ohad Naharin. It’s not necessarily a one-to-one choreographic inspiration…but more Gaga – the sensibility of full-bodiedness, pleasure, really being in your skin on this planet- and how that informs the research, the development, and the performance of my work. Gaga and Ohad’s sensibility through Gaga permeate every step.
I feel Hope Mohr’s organization and her attention to asking herself: What do I want? How do I get more of what I want? What I am interested in in this moment? That rigor, that self-questioning, that way of working come through in my process as well.
MT: An artist recently mentioned that she uses movement when words fail. What is your approach to text?
JG: I came to be a dancer from acting and singing, so it comes from the same place inside of me to speak or to sing or to have emotion on my face when I’m moving. I have always liked dance theater. It feels like the natural way for me to present work and ideas.
In tending to audiences, [text] allows people more avenues into your work. If your movement doesn’t allow that, maybe text will. Or maybe it may wake them up, if the movement lulled them.
Delivering text on stage is a different craft. It’s something people study for their whole lives. You need to find the balance between realism, naturalism, conversation and projection, delivery, presentation. It’s like movement. You are not just walking down the street. You are on stage. I don’t believe simply because we speak in our every day lives, that it is an easy and natural application of that onto the stage. We, as dancers, should seek training, advice, and knowledge about the ways to deliver text.
MT: The text you use is mostly very personal. How is it created?
JG: There’s no one way that we’ve created text (or movement or lifting sequences). Some text I come in with, some text comes from free writes, and some is prompted.
The “Uncle” text [in the first section] came from Sebastian and me having an hour-long conversation about intimacy, touch, sexuality, family, vulnerability… I recorded our conversation and excerpted these words.
The “I want to make a piece with you…” text came from actual ideas that I had been collecting for years and also some that we came up with and edited in the studio. Sebastian is great to work with in many ways, but one of those ways is that he and I work well at bouncing ideas and text back and forth; we have a lot of “What if we said this?” moments in rehearsal. We polish or improve what the other suggests. We will then craft them over time, including repetition, adding a gesture, feeling what is right for an on stage delivery. We often keep the text alive, or in a shape that we can play inside of, rather than a set script.
Instead of getting lost in the text, I back up and try to think of what the text is in service of: Is it about showing a deeper emotional place, sharing exposition or backstory, connecting us more, offering humor?
MT: Do you have choreographic tools that you use when making work?
JG: Yes, many… it’s a mixture. I video, keep notes/journals, do free writes, improvise, etc. Early on I play with improvisation scores, ideas, prompts and video a lot, then pull out qualities, lifts, durational ideas or relationship structures from the videos and we re-learn them. Surprisingly little remains in the final piece, but it’s a starting off point and helps us find what resonates most.
In the most recently created duet, there’s what I call the “spotlight series,” which is made of 13 little vignettes. These came mostly from the videos. In the same duet we worked with handshakes. How do different men -father/son, soldiers, boss/employee- shake hands? We were exploring how personal and intimate the scale, the range, and the physicality were. In the beginning, I also worked with ideas that were ritualistic and slow in terms of time and quality, and other ideas that were kinetic and chaotic. Very little of these early ideas are in the piece, but it definitely fed what came later: the ideas of the roles we play, step into, or go towards permeate throughout this section.