Gender Bender Confusion!

Last night I went to see the last third of a three-part dance series on the theme “Gender Benders” at Symphony Space. This one was by Monica Bill Barnes & Company and Nicholasleichterdance. (Unfortunately, I missed the second part of the series, by Les Ballets Grandiva; the first was Keigwin Kabaret, which I blogged on earlier). Like the Keigwin, this was comprised of a series of short pieces, some mostly dance, others more like wordless skits, some containing both, and all presumably aiming to challenge our notions of gender.A couple of the pieces choreographed by Barnes and performed by her and Deborah Lohse that stuck in my mind were these cutely humorous Vaudeville-esque sketches featuring the two women in overdone makeup and platinum blonde wigs and wearing maid-like aprons over ruffly skirts, who were kind of simultaneously sexed-up — one kept bunching her skirt and wanting to lift it — and naively sweet and confused. It was very funny, very cute, and Lohse’s expressions were brilliant. She has a tall, thin, somewhat gangly frame, and she really seemed to know how to use that to maximum comical effect here. I recognized her name in the progam then her face as soon as I saw her onstage, and I realized where from when I read her bio: she has her own newly-started company, ad hoc Ballet, whose website I’d visited after the introduction of a new Winger contributor from that company. Anyway, I’d actually like to learn more about Vaudeville since I’ve seen a few modern companies use it now. Kind of ridiculous that I know so little since my boyfriend in grad school was writing his dissertation on its history, and I read Fred Astaire’s autobiography

I really LOVED Nicholas Leichter though. My favorite pieces were his “Baby Doll,” a solo which he performed, and “Undertow,” a piece for four men wearing tight form-fitting skirts with sexy thigh-high back slits, leather jackets with nude mesh undershirts, and finger and toenail polish. That piece explored in a short time a rather large panoply of male interactions, as the men, flirted with, hugged and caressed, lifted, fought with, and threw each other about. The costumes, along with some of the snaky Samba-y hip swaying would have been very “sexy” on women — but how did they look on men, I felt Leichter asked.

In “Baby Doll,” Leichter came out onstage alone, dressed in a man’s pinstriped suit, then, pretending to have a conversation with someone else — initially maybe someone gazing at him, then coming onto him, then perhaps a lover who was jilting him — reacted against what that absent other was doing. Initially, he seemed embarrased about being looked at, then nervous and somewhat frightened, then burst into hysterical laughter, then hurt and crying, lashed out. At one point, he pulled his pants down and mooned the absent other, then waddled around the stage, too lazy or angry to pull them back up. It was funny but disconcerting to see a man do such a thing, do all these things. Also, I thought how “feminine” the emoting and the reactions were, which contrasted sharply with his muscular “masculine” physique.

The thing that threw me was, I hadn’t known who Leichter was before this, so I looked in the program and saw the name of the performer for this piece listed as “Clare Byrne.” I then looked at the insert, and saw that they had changed it to Leichter as the performer for tonight’s show. I thought, huh, “Clare” is a strange name for a man … then when I got home looked up the name on the web and found that she was not a man at all. (In fact, she’s the one who’s doing that Kneeling piece throughout next week at various NY locations, which I am definitely going to scope out!) But, unless the whole thing was just a misprint, I couldn’t believe he had choreographed this piece for a woman — it would have been so completely different for a woman to have performed it — gone would be everything I just said above. And that made me think that, of everything I saw in this “gender bender” series, it was really only the men’s performances that I found “gender-assumption” challenging. Not that I didn’t find the women’s dancing beautiful or remarkably athletic. But, I guess women can kind of look or act any ole way — we can wear short sexy skirts, pantssuits, men’s underwear, army camoflauge or ruffly skirts, and we can be ballerinas or pole dancers or breakers or sexy sambistas and it’s all just that; nothing looks out of the ordinary. But for a man to cry or emote at all, to don nail polish and a skirt with a high back-slit and move his hips in a sexy figure eight motion… it just makes you stop, look, and think. And, I mean, how many of the DWTS celebrity males have (beyond annoyingly) freaked over looking too feminine in the Latin dances — Ian and Billy Ray this time around, George Hamilton last time; and there were several guys in my old social dancing school who dropped out of the international Latin classes because they were “too girly”… It’s interesting though, because at the same time, I don’t think this greater gender flexibility amounts to women actually having more power…

Anyway, this was a short program, but it’s inexpensive and thought-provoking. Visit Symphony Space for tix; it’s on through the 21st.

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