Where Does the "Queen" End and the "Woman" Begin?: Alexis Arquette. And, Alonzo King's LINES Ballet

Last night, I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival a documentary about the journey of Alexis Arquette, of the famous acting family, from man to woman.

I’m glad I pre-ordered tickets; door sales lines were long:

Entitled “Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother,” this was one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve seen, but not for the reasons touted by the filmmakers, who, unfortunately, had to return to L.A. and England and were unable to stay for an after-show Q&A. Will teach me not to wait until the end of the festival to see a movie — that’s one of the reasons I go to festival films, argh. And how much I would have LOVED to meet Alexis — a true character! Anyway, the press release stated that, though filled with celebrities, drag queens and Hollywood glitterati, the film was a serious look at transgendered life. I felt like it was actually more about the former, and regarding the latter, it left me with more questions than it answered — neither of which made it at all a disappointment. To the contrary, it was absolutely mesmerizing.

My only other experiences with the subject of transgender life come from Jeffrey Eugenides’s profound, brilliant novel Middlesex, one of the greatest American novels, ever, I think. And that story differered from this because the main character was hermaphrodic and, without an operation, decided to re-define himself as a man after being raised female. I missed the Felicity Huffman movie, which Oberon blogged about in detail. Other than that, I remember a person in college, who called herself Tatiana. My school was huge, though, and I never knew her; I only knew she tried out for both male and female parts on the cheer squad, freaking out many a male cheerleader, including my lovely then boyfriend. I felt sorry for her.

But this, I found to be more a very sympathetic portrait of a younger sibling lost in the shadows of his very famous sisters and searching desperately for his own voice. It drove home the point, without necessarily meaning to, that growing up in the light of the cameras with a large family and many flamboyant, big-personalitied drag queen friends, can, ironically, make for a very lonely life.

Of course he doesn’t seem lonely, having adopted that same ‘huge personality’ as his sisters and drag companions. It’s a self-made documentary, so his face and voice are everpresent, and, while his incessant whining can really grate on your nerves at times, overall he’s just simply fascinating. By the way, I’m very aware that some would say it’s wrong to use masculine pronouns to refer to him since he sees himself as a woman, but this was the crux of my problem here. Unlike Cal in Middlesex, who begins life as a girl but narrates his story from his older, male point of view which compels the reader to envision him as a man, Alexis, who changed his name in his teens but, interestingly, never says what from, for the vast majority of the film actually is a man and seems, to me, essentially masculine — a total preening Queen, who loves dressing in drag and wearing makeup and continuously changing hair colors, but definitely a man. The film includes several clips of him growing up, and spending his teens, twenties and early thirties as a gay man, and a really good-looking one at that — in fact, he kind of reminded me of Evan McKie on the Winger :)

A gay man, he seemed to know little of women’s bodies. When he goes to the plastic surgeon, of course he wants humongous breasts, with nipples practically at chin-level. The surgeon can only laugh. “What, you can’t do that?” Alexis asks dejectedly. Forced to undergo psychiatric therapy in order to gain the right to have the surgery — understandably humiliatingly aggravating (is this mandatory for people having breast enhancement or lyposuction?) — Alexis brings his therapist a self-made drawing of how he envisions his future vagina: it resembles a sweet, tiny peach core. First thing though, he is quick to assert, the nose has got to go. His nose, he tells his surgeon, is that of a man — the type of man he is attracted to for sure — but it’s just not a female nose. So, he has a very idealized notion of the exact female body he wants. It wasn’t surprising to me that many of his friends began to accuse him of making the film not because he actually wants the reassignment surgery, but for attention.

For a film about changing one’s sex organs, it dealt very little with actual sexuality. There are some really interesting interviews with doctors about how far male to female reassignment surgery has come in the last few years: parts of the penis are maintained and used to construct the clitoris, making the new clitoris nearly as sensitive as a real one — but that’s more physical than sexual. As a gay man attracted to and used to sleeping with other gay men, if he became a woman he would need to turn to straight men for romantic partnership, with whom he seemed to have little experience. That’s just so completely mind-boggling to me. I’d think it would take a very open-minded straight man to go for someone who was once another man. At one point, he does film himself with a very young boyfriend, but he is still male then, and it’s unclear whether this shy, untalkative young man, so different from Arquette, is gay, straight, or bi.

Unlike in Middlesex, where I felt myself vehemently hating any character who wanted Cal to remain female, here I found myself wanting so badly for Alexis NOT to get the surgery. Maybe it was just that I kept thinking of that young Alexis as so Evan-y and such a beautiful man, or maybe it’s that I was just so scared for him, as I would be for anyone, to have such a serious surgery. I won’t reveal the end, but he begins to freak out a little as well after he “passes” his psych exam.

All in all, I found it an absolutely fascinating portrait of a preening but confused, emotionally needy, but very human person whose need to feel comfortable in his skin, though taken to another level here, is ultimately something everyone can relate to. If he was trying to gain celebrity, and I DON’T think he was, I have to say, he is as unforgettable as Cal, Eugenides’s main character. From here on, I think every time I see anything starring any Arquette, I will definitely think of him. I highly highly highly recommend it when it hits the theaters.

On Thurday night, Dea and I, used Dance Link’s two-for-one ticket offer (you’ll get a one-year subcription to their discount program if you attend the Fall For Dance Festival), and went to see the fabulous Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet at the Joyce in Chelsea. They danced two pieces, “Migration” (about “the hierarchical migration of birds and mammals”), and our favorite, “The Moroccan Project,” a gorgeous contemporary ballet danced to beautifully rhythmic and melodious African, Moroccan, Arabic, and Andalusian Flamenco music. To me, it epitomized what I love in contemporary ballet — dance ripe with possibilities for taking traditional ballet and fusing it with other kinds of beautiful movement from around the world — here, African, Spanish, Moroccan, Indian — to create something really sublime and worldly.

The piece consisted of a combination of beautiful duets — some romantic, some playful, some fraught with discontent — solos, and ensemble work. During the group parts, the dancers would never dance alone but always worked with and off of each other, looking closely at each other, reacting to each other’s movement, at one point literally bouncing off of each other: during one of my favorite parts, four men laced arms and turned away from a lone woman who, in “Red Rover” fashion, thrashed and hurled her body at them desperately attempting to convince them to allow her into their fraternal circle.

Another favorite part of mine were the “solos” — where only one dancer is actually moving on one part of the stage, but other dancers are onstage as well, very closely watching the moving dancer, examining his or her movement, their facial expressions and tilted heads intently trying to understand the statement that moving dancer was making with her or his body. Visually, it had the effect of being an exercise in learning another language: the moving dancer was definitely speaking to the stationary dancers, and they were surely listening and understanding. With the music bearing foreign lyrics beating in the background, the point is compellingly made that dance is another language as vibrant, complex and meaningful as any spoken.

Dea and I also noticed that the dancers — all wearing matching costumes of understated peach dresses for the women, tan gaucho-styled pants for the men — somehow blended in with each other, though they had varying skin color: no one person stood out as being, for example, “the African American dancer” or “the Latino dancer.” Because it was a truly multi-ethnic company, it did not look at all out of the ordinary for, for example, a red-haired freckled man to be doing intense African-based movements to Gnawan percussive instruments. How awesome is that!! “If I could be a ballet dancer,” Dea said, “this is the kind of company I’d want to be in!”

Also, Dea brought this for me from Brazil:

It’s a CD by a Brazilian singer named Marisa Monte, with lots of really pretty samba songs. I’ve never heard of her and I love the music — how sweet is Dea :)

10 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting that photo of the beautiful Aesha Ash – the same photo appears in a major article in tomorrow’s NY Times Arts & Leisure section entitled “Where Are All the Black Swans?” The article deals with the difficulties black ballerinas have faced in trying to make inroads in classical ballet in this country. It points out that there has never been a black female principal dancer in either ABT or NYCB and that the only black woman ever promoted to principal in a major American company is Lauren Anderson of the Houston BAllet. Misty Copeland, a corps dancer, is the only black woman presently dancing at ABT and NYCB currently has no black women in its ranks. Aesha Ash was in fact a corps member at NYCB for several years (and she was a beautiful, stunning dancer who sparkled in virtually every ballet she was in) but left the company in 2003 to join a European company for awhile before joining Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet. The article does not fully address the issue of why she left but it is suggested that she felt that there were no real opportunities for her to move up in the company. Did you happen to see her in either or both of the ballets you saw at the Joyce?

  2. Yes, we did, and we loved her! Although, I must say all of the dancers were superb. I’m pretty sure she was in both but I’m positive she was in the second one, The Moroccan Project. She danced a lot in that second piece, but in particular she was the woman I was describing who was really throwing her body into that line of men trying desperately to get them to “let her in.” Her performance was really powerful. Thanks for the heads-up — I will definitely get the paper tomorrow!

  3. did u know aesha ash was the dance double for “Eva Rodriguez” in Center Stage? :) She really is a beautiful dancer, especially in the Rachmaninoff piano concerto piece at the “workshop performance”, where she does the switcharoo with “Maureen”.

  4. Ugh, I HAVE to see that movie — it’s never in any video rental place and the NYPL doesn’t have it! I’m going to have to do like Matt and join Netflix!

  5. I totally wanted to see Lines, a friend of mine I graduated with just started dancing for them. I’m jealous!

  6. WHAT?
    You have never seen Center Stage , Tonya?
    you must be kidding me, seriously haha!

  7. No, Cathy, I’m not kidding, unfortunately!!! No one ever has the movie in stock!

  8. I’ve taken class at the San Francisco Dance Center, where the Alonzo King LINES ballet rehearses. The studios are beautiful, and I believe my teacher was in the company. I’m really glad you enjoyed their performance.

  9. Hahaha – thanks, Ariel!

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