Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reflections on Queer Dance

The following is my introductory note in the program for tonight's 2nd Annual Queer Dance Festival at CSU East Bay, followed by some related videos. This felt like an appropriate exploration to share here:

Reflections on the Nature of “Queer Dance”
By Queer Dance Festival Director Eric Kupers
February 17th, 2011
University Theatre, CSU East Bay

I want to attempt a definition of “Queer Dance,” (even though I believe that these two words are ultimately impossible to pin down.)

 “Queer” is my favorite way to identify myself. The word has a lot of complex connotations, as it has been used historically (and still today sometimes) as a way to put-down, insult, repress and attack people who seem different. Many people are triggered when they hear this word—remembering feelings of hurt and anger. However, I love that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and affiliated communities have reclaimed the word as a symbol of our empowerment.

At this point in my life I have spent equal amounts of time in intimate relationships with men and women. In this sense I identify as Bisexual. At the same time, I am married to a man that I have been with for over ten years (and plan to be with for the rest of my life.) In this sense I identify as Gay. And still at the same time I am a non-conformist artist at heart, and so feel that any label, identity or definition of myself is limiting and inaccurate. The closest I can come to whole-heartedly identifying myself is to just say, “I am.”

For me the word “Queer” includes all of this—even the non-conforming parts. “Queer” points to the aspects of us that are beyond labeling, while at the same time acknowledges the oppression and empowerment of us who live outside of mainstream heterosexual and dualistically gendered roles. 

“Dance” is a word that describes movement when viewed from a particular perspective. It includes choreography, performance, creative movement, what we do at parties and clubs, as well as the interactions of the cells, fluids and organs in our bodies, the relationship of the planets and solar systems, the combined movement of all the people in an urban area at any one moment, the flight of birds and bugs, and so much more. 

I think of Dance as a point of view rather than a phenomenon itself. It is rather a way of experiencing any phenomena from a slightly larger frame of reference—acknowledging its flow, exchange, and interdependence.

What you see tonight onstage is “dance” just as much as what you are doing right now with your body as you read this is “dance.” From this understanding, there’s absolutely no way anyone could truthfully say, “I am not a dancer.” Dance is impermanence made visible.

“Queer Dance” is therefore immensely open, inclusive, fluid, ambiguous, and omnipresent.  It takes great courage to live in this universe that is at its core uncertain, ever-changing, mysterious and impossible to pin down with any definition or concept. When I am able to embrace this sense of cosmic insecurity, and perhaps even celebrate it, I am practicing the basics of Queer Dance.

Tonight we have gathered together a concentrated burst of Queer Dance for you. I encourage you to not take any of it too literally and instead to listen with your whole being like you might listen to poetry, or like you might remember images and feelings from a dream.


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Monday, February 14, 2011

Investigating Mysteries

I love mysteries. I love mystery novels and movies, and mysterious stories and myths. I love when spiritual teachers refer to the divine as the "Great Mystery."

More and more these days I'm seeing my performance work as a series of mysteries I'm immersed in. Each new performance project at times seems like something I've conjured up with my collaborators, and at other times like something much bigger and mysterious that we are entering into. I much prefer the latter perspective. And when I engage from this perspective of entering a mystery, I think the work that comes out of it is much stronger.

In mystery novels and movies we join the central characters as they uncover clue after clue that leads them onward to some great revelation. This revelation might be the identity of a criminal, or the origins of a powerful force, or the exposure of some ancient lineage that is shaping our world today. Usually these mysteries (when they are skillfully executed) end in a kind of unresolved resolution--the immediate problem is solved but there is much that remains to be discovered. Along the way we empathize with the formal or inforrmal detective(s) through feelings of fear, anticipation, triumph, betrayal, anger, understanding and so much more.

I think these mysteries are potent for us emotionally because of the tension they generate and the ways that this tension brings us into the present moment. If we could just find out "who did it" right at the beginning, we probably wouldn't care so much. Whatever we already know isn't the heart of mystery. The heart is what draws us onward.

I remember one of my mentor/teachers Joe Goode saying once in a workshop that if he can already envision the piece he is about to make, then it doesn't need to be made. I take this principle very seriously. I see all of my performance projects as mysteries that unfold from a particular jumping off point--a theme, story, image, feeling, intent--but then take me and everyone involved on a journey we could never have planned. I believe that the piece itself is always more interesting and complex than what I might have imagined.

Often this means that the product-oriented approach that much of the arts funding and presenting is based on doesn't translate for what I do. The performances are always just one small chapter in the mystery of each performance project.

Many Buddhist teachers speak about the value of "don't know mind"--that state of mind in which we hold questions lovingly and are able to relax with the uncertainty of all life. Creating performance works helps me practice my "don't know mind."

I am struck in the "mystery" I'm "investigating" right now, Dandelion's Friend project, with how I'm more patient than ever to let the piece reveal itself to me. I'm finding lots of clues, and then following the leads that these clues offer, to further clues. And at each step I feel I understand what the piece calls for a little bit better.

Perhaps I'm finding it easier than in the past to be patient with not-knowing  because this piece is connected to my friend who has passed on. I notice myself waiting for small hints she might give me from the other side, so am more focused on listening with my full being than on trying to figure it out myself.

And perhaps I'm feeling the fruits of my practice of being patient with the questions. This is something that has never come easy for me and so I have practiced it vigorously all of my adult life.

Some of the clues I've discovered so far for Friend are:
  • My friend Sharon's metal and wire sculptures--I've been using these to develop my own sculptures and also to design the use of space and light.
  • A fascination with the brain--Sharon died from a brain tumor and we often talked about the mysteries of the brain. I'm thinking of this piece sometimes as a surrealistic journey into a brain. We're using MRI x-rays, stories about brains and tumors, inner body imagery and more.
  • Music driven creation--Sharon was a wonderful artist, and this came through most clearly to me through her singing. This piece seems to be most strongly driven by sound, which is a new way for me to work.
  • Reflections on Friendship--It just so happened that some dear long-term friends have come back into my work for this project, precisely at the moment I'm wanting to explore the nature of friendship. This synchronicity seems like a strong clue.
I believe that I will follow these and other clues with my fellow travelers (a remarkable interdisciplinary ensemble) and that they will lead us to greater insight and beauty and healing of some kind. And I believe that the end of the project will feel unresolved. All my projects do.

And so each project becomes a clue in a way, towards unraveling the mystery of who I am, of what meaning and fulfillment there is to be found in this life, of who my collaborators are, of what our artistic longings are leading us towards.

And then my full body of work (and that of each artist) becomes a clue in some larger mystery about the nature of existence and the human journey towards wholeness.

I'm sure this keeps expanding outwards infinitely in spiraling circles, (and probably inwards too) with each mystery and all it's clues being one small clue in a greater mystery.

I write all this at the risk of sounding grandiose. My intention is not to assign great importance to my own work, but rather to place everything that I do as an artist (and that all artists do) in a context that feels inspiring and connecting. Thinking about art-making in this way encourages me to both journey forward with great gusto and to let go of trying to figure anything out or get anything done. It makes me want to engage fully and at the same time view my real work as just getting out of my own way so that the art can make itself.

When I look at my current project as a mystery I'm investigating, I'm more open to feedback and the opinions of others. Each thing that each person communicates to me about their experience with the work becomes just another clue. Sometimes it's an insight or interpretation that helps me understand more fully something we created intuitively. Sometimes it's a suggestion that doesn't resonate with me and so validates the direction I'm already moving in. Sometimes it's an image or idea that I couldn't have come up with, but that shows me another angle of what I'm working with.

And each obstacle, set-back and seeming failure becomes itself another clue. Investigating a mystery is no piece of cake. It calls forth everything we have and tests us constantly.  And I think we get back in proportion to how much we put in. Sometimes what we discover won't really make sense to us, but could make sense when seen by others from other perspectives.

In this way I like to think of each work as "not-mine." Perhaps I'm directing it and committing to it's manifestation in the world. But I'm more of a shepherd for it, rather than owner. I'm interacting with the work more regularly than anyone else, but that doesn't mean that my ideas on what it's "about" is right, or that I know more than others about the piece. Sometimes I feel like I know the least about it of anyone, and that I'm just a caretaker, keeping it alive so that others can come and immerse themselves in it.

It's so exciting to me to witness a work come into being. I still often mistake the performance as the essence of a project, but I'm learning more and more to value the step by step uncovering of each clue.

And when I feel confused, I like to remember that confusion is only painful because I think I'm supposed to know something. From the perspective of "don't know mind" every confusion can be reframed as an enticing mystery.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

This One's For Friendship

One of the things that is shifting in me in response to the recent death of my friend Sharon Mussen is a re-prioritizing of friendship.

I had a professor in grad school tell me once that I should never direct my friends in my projects--that the roles become too confusing. Even though I respect this professor very much, that advice somehow confirmed for me how much I operate from exactly the opposite view. I love creating experimental performance precisely because I get to do so with my friends.

Most of my closest friendships have developed through working together in Dandelion Dancetheater. Even if some of those people aren't able to work with our ensemble on a regular basis anymore, the ways that we bonded while creating and performing together run very deep. 

I don't socialize much outside of rehearsals and performances. When I have time off, I usually want to spend it at home with my partner or alone. There's so much to process from all of the artistic adventures I engage in. I find I need lots of down time just to catch up with myself. Therefore regular rehearsals are my social lifeblood.

Yes, the roles in a performance company are complicated--especially the power dynamics and issues around money, schedules and decision-making. I sometimes get confused about being the "boss" of my peers who are the same age and sometimes older than me. But all friendships have issues. These just happen to be some of the interesting ones we have to wade through.

Many of my collaborators in Dandelion have been important people in my life for 10 - 20 years now. And I'm loving the friendships that are developing with the newer ensemble members.

However, I sometimes lose touch with the friendship part of my art-making and get caught up in the less fulfilling parts.

Yes my career, and everything that goes along with it is important to me. Professional recognition, financial support and growing opportunities for Dandelion to create and perform work are all things that I want to see develop. But these are not the heart of my artistic life. Rather they are supports for what I see as the "real" work at hand, namely a journey towards wholeness.

I'm finding that our Friend project is serving as a reminder to return to the deeper currents of my art-making. I started this piece as a kind of tribute to Sharon, and an exploration of friendship. I've realized that in my relentless striving for success I missed out on a lot of opportunities to be with Sharon.

She was my one close friend who was a regular in my life but with whom I didn't collaborate on artistic ventures. Sometimes that meant we didn't see each other for months. I had a hard time slowing down enough from all of my work to connect with her, especially when her brain tumor forced her to speak and act extremely slowly.

I don't know if I'd call what I'm experiencing "regret," (as I prefer to think of all the choices that I've made as the best I could with the information I had at the time) but rather as a wake-up call.

I don't want to get so immersed in grant proposals, social events, meetings or things that I think might advance my career, that I forget about my precious time with my friends. I don't want to turn my art-making into a bunch of goals and achievements. I don't want to get as stressed out as I've been in recent years over what people will think of the work that I do. I don't want to get too serious about my work.

Yes, my career is as an artist, but I don't have to adopt the attitude that my career has to be something separate from my love and connection to spirit, or from my friendships. I'd rather that the majority of my time in rehearsal and performance with this amazing collection of friends is spent with a sense of joy and gratitude.

In this Friend project I'm looking for as many opportunities as possible for prioritizing friendship over any kind of external marker of success or validation. In this spirit I asked my CounterPULSE residency partner, Kegan Marling to dance a duet with me in the work-in-progress showing of Friend yesterday.

I didn't know how this fit in aesthetically with what we are doing, or whether it was the most interesting and innovative direction to go in. But I knew that I feel great love for my friend Kegan (who I've known and interacted artistically with for many years) and that I wanted a chance to "hang out" with him within the magical realm of the stage. I wanted to celebrate our friendship in one of the most powerful ways I know how to celebrate anything--through performance. It became a ritual marking our friendship, and through that invoking the power of friendship universally within the piece.

I'm so glad that we took this risk. It gives me faith in the transformation and re-prioritization I seem to be in the middle of--and excites me for what discoveries are around the next bend. Ironically it felt like a perfect compliment to the piece's aesthetic.

Here's a look at our first draft of this duet from our showing today:

(You can also view it at this link: )

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I'm humbled to see how deep so much of my conditioning runs.

I've been learning about and experimenting with inclusive dance techniques for almost a decade now. I'm continually looking for ways to make the ways I perform, think about, create and teach dance/theater inclusive of people with diverse mobilities.

And still my conditioning asserts itself over and over. I fall back on how I learned to dance. Sometimes this is wonderful and provides a storehouse of movement approaches and remembered choreographies. But sometimes this keeps me blind to who is actually with me in the room and what is actually presenting itself to be investigated.

A few rehearsals ago four of us created what I am calling the "Head-Wall Phrase." We took turns teaching the group movements, stacked on top of each other in an accumulating sequence. It was unplanned creation and I loved the energy that it brought along with it.

The next rehearsal had me wanting to teach this material to a larger section of our ensemble. I gave the instructions and we began. And right away Mickey remarked on how it can be so frustrating to learn movement material created by people without physical disabilities and then to have to take on the responsibility of adapting it to his body every time. Cristina agreed and I saw once again how much I was letting old habits dictate my rehearsal process.

While I do find that creating movement on my body with its particular mobility needs is a way for me to circumvent too much thinking and access my intuition, I would like to remember that I don't have to teach that movement to others just by showing it and having them imitate me.

There are so many ways to share movement in more inclusive ways. I've discovered some, and plan to keep discovering more as long as I am involved in this kind of work. What I find over and over again is that exploring ways to relay material in as inclusive a way as possible is not only important so that more people can be included, but it is also always more interesting aesthetically to me in what it produces.

Once we figured out that we should teach the "Head-Wall Phrase" through words that each person could interpret through the filter of her/his kinetic intuition, we created dance that sung beautifully, rather than just accomplished a successful sequence.

Here is our before and after versions:

(The video can also be found here if the embedding doesn't work for some reason: )

I look forward to watching this phrase evolve further as we include it within our larger structure, and as more ensemble members create their individual versions.

Birthing Pains

I see the creation of each art work as a kind of birth. There's both great connection and great pain in this process, and I often forget that the magnitude of how connecting a piece is directly relates to how painful its birth can be.

Last week we tried out a structure for performing a lot of the most salient material we've been developing in our Friend project. It's a difficult feat to imagine how to collage together all the disparate strains that develop in an experimental creation process, but I always do my best. The order of events that I came up with seemed very powerful when I envisioned it, and I was excited to get into rehearsal to try it out.

After talking through the two-page sequence of sections we gave it a try on Sunday night. There were some moments that resonated with me a great deal, and many unexpected images that moved me. But there were also long passages that felt awkward and confused. Those were excruciating.

Even though I know this is an important part of the creation process, I forget that in the moment when we're doing a first run of things. I feel ambushed by material that seems unformed or over-formed. I panic, try to push things into a more interesting state of relationship, try to speed everyone up, insert all sorts of new ideas or lighting angles and generally try to resist what is actually unfolding. I get mad at myself, the performers, circumstances. I feel disappointed and doubt my abilities as an artist.

Now that I've been directing ensemble-based performance steadily for over a decade, I can recognize a little sooner than before that I'm in a "first draft" experience and that it is usually painful. I'm able to relax with the process more. But it still hurts. Somehow the gap between my visions and expectations, and what actually comes out in an early run-through is always shocking.

This time I got a glimpse of insight into the process. I was able to watch myself as I went through the pain of pushing that first draft out into the universe, and then saw how I took that experience and transformed it into a second draft. Sometimes the second draft is as challenging as the first. But there are also times when it feels especially magical--forged out of the fire of disappointment into nuggets of performance electricity. This was one of those times.

Our next rehearsal was inspired. All the performers dug into the material at a whole new level. I was able to get the action moving and then watch as it seemed to create itself. The powerful material developed not in spite of, but directly in relationship to how painful our run-through had been.

Here's a look at that next step as it unfolded for us this past week:

(If you're unable to watch the embedded video, you can just go to this link: )

We have a public showing tomorrow of our project as it stands at this point. I know that there is no way I can tell how all our material is working until we try it with an audience. This next step could be any combination of painful and joyous, and both are probably equally helpful (even though my preference from where I sit now is definitely for an experience more on the joyous side of the spectrum.)

It feels good to be able to remind myself before going into this public showing that my intention is for the work, myself and the ensemble to grow from this experience--and to invite the pain or awkwardness as part of that growth if that is what the cards hold for us this time.