Monday, June 25, 2012

Gay Men and Modern Dance

The Wild Reed's 2012 Queer Appreciation series continues with a post that also fits well into this blog's ongoing series, The Dancer and the Dance. That's because I'm sharing this evening an excerpt from Julia L. Foulkes' 2002 book Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. As you'll see, this particular excerpt explores how from its earliest days, modern dance was "distinct from other artistic genres in the groups of people it attracted," including gay men. "Modern dance began and remains a place where people on the edges of society congregate and express themselves," writes Foulkes.

(Note: To start at the beginning of The Wild Reed's 2012 Queer Appreciation series, click here.)


Like Picasso, Matisse, and other modernist painters, modern dancers created new ways for people to see themselves, from disjointed, angular composites of body parts to colorful, rounded, fluid outlines. New images came out of new roles. Modern dance was distinct from other artistic genres in the groups of people it attracted: white women (many of whom were Jewish), gay men, and some African American men and women. Women held leading roles on stage and off, replacing the common stage image of the sexual ingenue with that of the pioneering individual who moved her own body with disquieting, abrupt force. Gay men, too, recast the effeminate image of the sissy into a hardened, heroic, dancing American athlete. African American dancers, however, did not find an easy place within this new American art form, even though the theme of African Americans' rise from oppression dominated many of the stories of white modern dancers' choreography, such as Tamiris's Negro Spirituals. In their slighted role, African American dancers and choreographers defined the limits of modern dancers' communal visions, and in their own productions they explored other conceptions of dance, of modern times, and of the United States by thrusting Africa and the Caribbean onto American stages.

This vital new force in the arts inevitably evoked questions about how America could be portrayed in dance, what was American in the arts, and what it meant to be an American. In many ways, modern dance productions portrayed the United States as a society composed of heroic individuals, a theme also found in post office murals and Federal Theatre productions created out of the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA). One of the most celebrated plays of the era was Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938), which eulogized Americans' ability to group together quirky individuals in both life and death. But modern dancers enacted a more radical concept. Marginalized groups of gay men, Jewish women, and African American men and women flocked to a fledgling art form that was based on physical expression. Defined by external physical characteristics or so-called deviant sexual practices, the social identities of these dancers shaped the means by which they contributed to defining America. And their physical differences and exploration of body movement showed the limits of pluralism and assimilation in the 1930s and, particularly, the depth and endurance of racial fracture.

Modern dance began and remains a place where people on the edges of society congregate and express themselves. . . . The evolution of modern dance into an esoteric art form illustrates the course of modernism in the United States where social roles reinforced a marginal path. White women, African American men and women, and gay men created in modern dance a malleable art form within which they might re-imagine conventional social roles. But that very malleability and radical re-visioning have kept modern dance on the fringe of the arts and the rim of society.

Modern dance's liminal place, though, lends it importance in offering an original perspective on how the arts reflect and contribute to the struggles and composition of our world. The instructiveness of dance begins with its elusiveness – the active embodiment of idea, practice, or historical era and its fleetingness. The inability to fix or stop the moment of dance allows for continual transformation of our finite bodies. James Baldwin elegantly described the power of performance as "the unmistakable silence in which [the performer] and the audience re-create each other." Dance resides within that hope of re-creation. It offers the possibility that our bodies are not always a prison of flesh and that we can change our physical presentation to the world and alter the way we see ourselves and others.

. . . In the 1930s white gay men succeeded in modern dance due to the strategy Ted Shawn devised to heighten virility and thereby diminish the perceived threat of homosexuality. . . . Shawn and other gay men found in modern dance a way to both display and conceal their circumscribed lives and, in doing so, further substantiated the coded association of the arts with male homosexuality. . . . In general, artists tolerated difference, and once gay men filtered into the arts, other gay men followed. In a society that criminalized homosexual acts, the arts provided a place of relative comfort, acceptance, and community.

NEXT: A Spirit of Defiance

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reclaiming the Queer Artistic Heritage
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1: Challenging Notions of Masculinity)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 2: Homophobia and the Male Dancer)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 3: Homosexuality and the Male Dancer)
The Dancer and the Dance
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Church and Dance
The Soul of a Dancer
A Dance of Divine Light
Seeking Balance

Image 1: "Decades of Dance" – Foster Fiz-Simons of Ted Shawn's Men Dancers (John Lindquist, Harvard Theatre Collection) and Garrett Ammon of Trey McIntyre Project (Jonas Lunqvist).
Image 2: From Men in Motion: The Art and Passion of the Male Dancer by François Rousseau.
Image 3: Ted Shawn Dancers.
Image 4: Some of Ted Shawn's dancers at Jacob's Pillow, Massachusetts.

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