Perry Brass: The Manly Pursuit of Desire: MadBoots – Seeing Dancers Rehearse Is Always Strange
Austin Diaz (left) with men from MADboots.
On a beautiful Tuesday in October I went over to Movement Research’s rehearsal site in Williamsburg Brooklyn to watch MADboots, a young contemporary all male dance company in its fourth year founded by Jonathan Campbell who graduated from Julliard’s dance program in 2010 and Austin Diaz, who came out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2011. Almost immediately after that, Diaz and Campbell founded MADboots.
What makes MADboots different from other all male companies, and there are a few of them already, is that it is unafraid of genuine male intimacy. There is a haunting, at moments tender queerness to it that insinuates itself beautifully. It’s bang-on-a-can new, but it also goes directly to that place inside all of us that wants to see men in those “compromising” situations in which they lose their fronts, barriers, and boundaries just enough to make the loss unforgettable.
I was lucky to be able to watch them rehearse. Some artistic directors feel that rehearsals are too intimate and raw for outsiders. Years ago, preparing a piece on Mark Morris, I asked him if I could watch a rehearsal. He told me flatly No.
I have watched other companies rehearse, and for a writer it’s usually an exquisite experience. You can actually see the discipline and artistry of dance happen. For writers this is huge. As a group, we admire the discipline of dancers, something that many writers aspire to, although frankly writing is so wearing that it can only be compared to coal mining, with a few exultant breaks every now and then when everything goes perfectly, you’re not beating your head up against the wall, and you won’t have to rewrite 20 times.
So, writers envy the razor-sharp discipline of dancers, just as dancers know that there are places that writers go where they can’t—but when they do, wow! That’s when your breath is taken away and dance functions with a literature of its own. A literature steeped in the words that only the body can do.
Jonathan Campbell (left) and MADboots men.
We admire the sheer physical beauty and presence of dance, again something writers can’t pretend to have. In other words, some very schleppy people have become wonderful writers, but any kind of schleppiness, or genuine physical awkwardness, is rare among dancers.
Still, seeing dancers rehearse is strange. First because the thing that makes dance what it is—pure magic—is shown pretty naked. This is very hard work. The dancers show it.
On the afternoon I saw MADboots, the company was just coming off an arduous week of preparation for an event sponsored by the Joyce, big-time for small young companies, and they were physically tired. Both of the founders explained that to me. I could see it in the exhausted stretches of the young men on the floor.
In rehearsal, dancers become on one hand merely physical bodies—so that awkwardness thing re-appears while trying hard to draw on a bank account of energy already overdrawn—and also very human receptors of communication.
The question in dance is how to convey what the creator (in this instance, two creators, Austin and Jonathan) want to happen on the stage. There is language, and some choreographers are good at explaining what they want. They’ll tell you they want a body to drop like leaves swirling down a sewer, or they want one dancer to lift another as if the elevated body weighs only an ounce.
Or, sometimes, a ton.
Other choreographers show what they want, and one of the great questions in dance is what happens when a choreographer does not have the technique he wants a dancer to have? At that point you have to have a sense of total trust and communication, and the dancer is very much collaborating with the choreographer by expanding his vision. Dancers are good at these kinds of collaborations and this went on frequently during the MADboots rehearsal, when young dancers and young choreographers each extend the other.
In rehearsal, dance makers become like flower arrangers, deciding where something will be placed, and what will be discarded. MADboots already has a vocabulary of movement, necessary for any kind of dance, that is based on very fast stage or dance running (something Mark Morris brought in), but also with lots of beautiful lateral movements, those side movements across the floor that pick up intensity and energy, and also, very significantly, pushing. Pushing is new in modern dance, and this adds a lot of male intensity to their work. In the old days, dancers, especially male dancers never pushed each other except to show aggression and rejection—usually of an intimacy that was hinted at, but due to homophobia in the culture and dance world was consciously rejected. (And, let’s be honest, the dance world was rife was homophobia, drenched in it despite lots of protests and appearances to the contrary.) A great example of that is Jerome Robbins’ ballet “Fancy Free,” where three sailors get close to each other, achingly close, but have to push each other away and get down to business to establish “real guy” creds.
In MADboots, pushing becomes an invitation to renewing energy, as if the dancer being pushed is actually gathering energy from the push to do something else. Pushes are passed from one dancer to another; they are shared. The push becomes a way of snapping the action around the floor, intensifying it. It goes well with the sounds MADboots likes, the hard use of explosive, emotionally reactive noise, sometimes mixed with regular songs, even a bit of Judy Garland, like a haunting relic that pulls everything down to a receptive level.
The pushing, the lateral moves, the coming together and pulling apart only to come together again, brings back my feeling that all relationships in dance are human and telling: there’s no such thing as an “abstract” or meaningless dance. Not as long as there are humans on the stage. A young man sliding down to the feet of another is very telling, vulnerable, submissive. You are in the process of letting down the guard of both the dancer and the audience that makes dance so wonderful. It is here that the artistry of dance comes through, and why people become addicted to it. Men who were once football players, like the dancer John Ollom, of Ollom Dance, suddenly saw modern dance and realized this reached inside him to a place that had to come out. Dance is beyond words, and yet words open up a place that inspires dance.
Dance needs it.
MadBoots often uses men on a “pick up” basis, depending on what Campbell and Diaz have planned for a future show. MADboots dancers tend to look like “real boys,” rather than the ramrod straight physiques of dancers. They don’t have ballet boys’ bodies, but are slender with some slouchiness that is appealing. In dance of any sort, the look of the dancers is very important. Balanchine was famous for controlling every aspect of his dancers, down to their hair and what they smelled like. He would give his women perfume to wear that he wanted to smell.
Austin Diaz asks several times: “What is the shape of this movement?”
You always have to ask the question, what is it going to look like on the stage, with lights, costuming, and music behind it? Every second in a rehearsal is important—it is like a trial is going on, and at the end of it you want something wonderful to result: justice to your own work. The dancers are tired after three hours; one man does handstands as a way of reversing gravity and stretching himself up all the way out. Rest comes basically when you are not on—but even then the clock is going, because the body once it starts this process has to absorb movement even after the movement has already been performed.
At every aspect of a work the dancer is in a very special “moment,” and each aspect of the body changes that moment. People often ask me what is the difference between dance and sports? Well, in sports you don’t have to look good doing what you have to do. There is no consciousness; it’s simply done. That ball will end up across a football field no matter what. In dance, every player would have to look superb doing it, and they would have to be able to do it again and again, and yet always with the realization that it won’t happen exactly the same way twice.
I watch a duet for men. Two men suddenly holding one another without a lot of reservations and with real dance intimacy, which is more formal and in some ways more moving and fragile than real intimacy because it is so time focused. It can only happen for a measured number of beats and then it will change or stop. A duet is a relationship between two dancers. Three guys together become architectural, and that is something I like to see in dance: an architecture of bodies. Many choreographers, especially newer ones, shy away from real dance architecture, that is, how bodies in groups relate to each other and produce complex, sometimes difficult forms. Part of that is the “disco-ization” of dance—a large part of what is supposed to be serious dance now is pop inspired. This makes the audience comfortable, mostly because being uncomfortable is pretty verboten now. If you want to be uncomfortable, just get a job; you don’t want this out of an art situation which is currently only supposed to confirm your own value and self-esteem.
This of course is not my idea of what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to shake you up and give you an experience you won’t find on America’s Got Talent. But finding genuine dance architecture in contemporary modern dance is rare. MADboots tries it, and then gives up. I wish they’d try it a lot more. Martha Graham, who made everyone, including herself, uncomfy, loved doing it, and bodies in groups take on amazing relationships and formations in Graham. They are not simply lined up facing the audience doing their own thing.
MadBoots though makes up for the lack of architecture with the vulnerability of its young men. Their work definitely has a post-9/11 feel to it, with guys showing fear, twitching, holding each other, and comforting each other. Modern dance moves from the feet up, with the feet for the most part rooted on the floor. At its best in encompasses all the deepest aspects of human life, stripped and often unexplainable. I am very glad to have discovered for myself this group of young men, and can’t wait to see what they do next.
See MADboots on Vimeo:
On Wednesday, Oct 28, Perry Brass, author of The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love, will be hosting CELESTIAL BODY, the first of a series of workshop/performances at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, 209 W. 13th Street in New York’s West Village. CELESTIAL BODY investigates the emotional and spiritual connection queer people have to submission, and also BDSM. CELESTIAL BODY answers the question: “Is our often-censored urge towards sex and our great, undeniable urge towards a union with God . . . the same urge?” (Perry Brass, The Substance of God, A Spiritual Thriller.)
Other dates for CELESTIAL BODY are Wednesday, November 18 and Wednesday, Dec. 16. All events for at 7 PM. They are free but a voluntary $5 contribution to support the Bureau of General Services will be asked at the door. Guest speakers Wed., Oct. 28 include Andrew Harwin, life coach, interfaith minister, and elder in the BDSM community; John Ollom, dancer, Artistic Director of Ollom Movement Art/Prismatic Productions; and Darrell Perry (Darrellblackandblue) BDSM community builder.