Monday, March 31, 2008

You Can Do Anything You Want

I'll thank my friend Max for introducing me to The Boredoms. And while you may be able to listen to this group of noise-rockers from Osaka on MySpace, I don't think you'll get to hear what I heard. Which was: a seven-neck guitar, played like a, um, gong? Drum? I don't have terminology for this, because as far as I know, it's never existed.

Let me be clear: There were also three full drum kits onstage. The Guitar Tower, which Max dubbed "The Guitower," was simultaneously a percussive and melodic sound, unlike anything I've experienced before. The show hurt me and thrilled me, and I had to wear earplugs for most of it, to be able to listen. My clothes were vibrating.
So I try to describe it: a tribal celebration on Mars, an ancient ritual from the future, something terrifyingly beautiful, like a mountain or a three-mile-high waterfall. One had to enter a sort of trance to follow the rising and falling, the crescendo and decrescendo, the building to climax over and over and over again. And, one had to dance. There was no option not to move.
During the week prior to this show, I read Kurt Vonnegut. I read Cat's Cradle, and was taught, shall we say, SCHOOLED on how brilliantly imaginative and whimsical serious literary fiction can actually be. Ice-nine. Seven-neck guitar. Bokonon. Yoshimi. Do you see where I'm going with this?
You can do whatever you want. This was the major lesson of the week. This is not a simplistic, amoral assertion of permission to pick my nose in public, nor is it an abandoning of any principle. In fact, it's the greatest principle. This is a declaration of absolute creative freedom in service to others, in service to creativity itself, in service to the New, the Beautiful, the Transformative. I can make whatever it is I want to make, and no marketing plan or university job or social standards of normalcy should stop me. No artist is guaranteed an audience, but at least the potential for success in something totally unexpected is there, has precedent, and that is hopeful.
The Boredoms come screaming, dancing, grunting, pounding, screeching, throbbing into a sort of contract: this time we spend together will be different from the hour before and the hour after. People who were overwhelmed or cynical knew it immediately, and left. People who wanted to be changed put their hands in the air and hooted and laughed and thrashed their heads around. I was one more little vessel, infused with newness and once again innoculated against all the "shoulds" that detract from the biggest and most important: Should Love, Should Create.
There are so many treacherously bland routines in my life that exhaust me, decisions I need to make that stress me, and tasks to complete that suck out the marrow of my waking hours. Even when I'm making more money from creative work this will be at least partially true. I fight inertia with the things I write about here, but still, I'm often the one in charge of setting up the opportunity for beauty or hilarity. This time, I got taken along, and that has to be at least part of why I was so affected. Max told me to see the Boredoms, and I didn't decide if I liked them before I went. Tony told me to read Cat's Cradle, and I didn't decide if I'd read "enough" Vonnegut before jumping in. Both were utterly affecting and important, and I didn't find them on my own. What a relief. Not only can I do whatever I want, I can trust my friends to help me.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Revolution at the Boston Burlesque Expo

Here I am, in fab vintage, on Friday night of the Great Boston Burlesque Exposition.

Saturday night, I danced in the Main Event with the Babes in Boinkland, and we took "Best Group." The more I see of the world of old vs. neo-burlesque, the prouder I am of the group I'm in. (yes, I'll post more photos as they become available...)

Let me explain. In burlesque, like in anything, there are traditionalists who LOVE to recreate the past. These are the performers that wear replica costumes, dance to music from the 50s, and usually model their look on a particular feature dancer from the era they love best. Traditionalists won't actually perform in groups, because that's not the way it WAS during the real heyday of burlesque circuits. Their performances are usually incredibly glamorous, focusing on glitzy costumes and charm, and they celebrate a certain ideal of beauty that includes fabulous breasts and coiffed hair, a lighthearted smile as the tease begins, and for all intents and purposes, their sexuality is obvious, unproblematic, feminine, and totally entertaining. I love feathers, glitter, rhinestones and all the accessories of old-school burlesque. I've watched the movies, studied the photos, and understand why someone like Dita could make a smash recreating it all. Maybe the dancers were social deviants of a kind before the 60s, but their routines often appear quaint, when redone now, even with the most lavish feather boas in tow.

I want to ask some tougher questions about sexuality, performance, and the purpose of the tease. While the Babes in Boinkland are often comedic and usually somewhat slapdash, as a group we represent something very particular in the world of burlesque: the neo-burly girl who can represent middle class, lesbian, DIY and feminist values.

Neo-burlesque is a name given to things that don't fit into regular performance categories, but include some sort of titillation. You can go to Vegas and see it in size zero gals with hard bodies. You can also go to Montreal, and see the Dead Dolls, who will do their best NOT to turn you on, while they're turning you on. It's a category with very few limits, unlike "old school," which does tend to "mean" something. (I put this is quotes, since burlesque legend Satan's Angel, who hosted Friday night's show, outed herself onstage as a bisexual, and used to twirl fire tassels on her pasties. The bad girl of the bad girls in the 60s was totally neo, dude.)

The point is, every troupe does something in particular, in a huge spectrum of possibilities for a Neo group. The Babes in Boinkland won on Saturday night because we rehearsed like super-heroes, did some incredible chair and acrobatic tricks, sang part of our song at the top of our lungs, and hit a few very key bits of choreography in unison. We were clearly a tight-knit group, and our choreography, music, and costumes were great.

But we weren't in partial drag, like Bella Minx Burly-Q. We weren't made up to look dead, like the Dead Dolls. We weren't a lot of things that probably challenged the judges a great deal. One thing we WERE, that I think challenged everyone, is self-posessed.

Burlesque dancers drop their clothes and scamper away. We didn't. We broke the 4th wall by entering slowly, talking to each other, and settling into our places before our music cue. We ended the number with what happens when the curtain goes down--sighing, high-fiving, topless hugs, searching around for those really expensive gloves and snatching them up. We cleared our own clothes off the stage, like we do in rehearsal.

Was this a deliberate statement about our being the kind of girls who were raised to clean up after ourselves? Nope. It was originally part of the "Life in the Freakshow" theme we were working with. But the effect, at least for me, was monumental. We were a self-contained entity; we entered, danced, celebrated, and exited, almost without needing the audience's participation at all. That's rare for me, and rare for burlesque. We looked each other in the eye, undressed each other, touched and supported and danced with each other, which a lot of groups only do for momentary effect. For part of our number, we split into pairs and stared into each others' eyes for four bars while we peeled off each other's jackets. The lyrics during this section refer to how you get by in show business: you need "a lot of love and compliance."

That we emphasized female relationships: friendships, working, sexual relationships and so on makes us unique, I think, and it's what's most fun about performing with the Babes.

So who cares that our solos were ignored by the judges? Like our Ani DiFranco says, we can made something bigger than any one of us alone.

That, I'm hoping, says something hopeful about the future of a style of dance predicated, in the past, on female competition for male gaze/money.

Oh, and I twirled my tassels in public for the first time. Which deserves almost as much scrutiny, and almost as much celebration!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Museum of Bad Art

Teresa, with "Green Figure on Sharp Rock." The curator wrote: "a work of profound sadness. An ocean-skinned nymphet, her bottom abraded by barnacles, surveys her options in the face of an unpleasant storm." Also, "Hollywood Lips," by Tiffany Nelson. "In Hollywood, even the palm trees have had work done."

Click on the title to check out this place. Tony rented a car for work stuff for a day, which meant we were suddenly, effortlessly mobile for an evening, so we grabbed Max and Teresa and drove to Dedham to see the Museum of Bad Art in the last hour before it closed. Thank you Paul Hastings for telling me it existed.

The Museum of Bad Art is a collection of paintings that were found in the trash, in thrift stores, or donated by people who recognized that they were never going to make it in the big time as genius of visual media. Normally, I try to avoid bad art, especially since I have to spend so much of my time reading bad writing. (I mean, "student writing," which, according to the theorists, is a VERY different thing.)

But no matter. When you descend into the yellowish basement, on your way to the bathrooms at the Dedham Community Theater, suddenly you enter a world where the worse the art is, the more wonder and awe and pleasure it produces. Mike Frank, the curator, has written interpretive cards for each painting, which, of course, are the highlight of the experience. And it's the same type of pleasure as Mystery Science Theater 3000--where the insanity of the original media is compouded and enhanced by comedic interpretation. (If you don't know, you better go to MST3K)

I think the publicity will be more important, in the long run, than any worries about copyright here, so I'll give you a mini-tour. Here is Tony, emerging from the Men's, next to a painting entitled "No Visible Means of Support."

This one is called "Thornton's Pond," and it was acquired from the trash. "The sky exhales a feathery rush, defying reflection in the murky alpine waters."

Max's favorite. A color-pencil drawing of a cat, with a kind of ghostly dog hovering over him. Titled "He Was My Friend." One the largest, about which there is apparently a grand debate, regarding its level of "completedness," due to the empty, vacant eyes...

My favorite, "The Waterfall," which appears to be one of those endearing efforts towards "happy trees." The curator chimes in with "snow-capped peaks tower over this summer meadow featuring evergreens, wildflowers, and a waterfall of mysterious origin."

After our excursion to the MOBA, we ate a resoundingly bad meal at Bertuccis, and tried to see it all as a package, as a perfect evening in the suburbs. We got close, I think. We got close.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Thanksgiving in March

During my spring break last year I took a trip to Bali. My best girlfriend of fourteen years, Melissa, was on the last leg of a long few months traveling in Asia, all three schools I worked at were on break at the same time, and I had some wiggle room on my credit card. This is a picture of a few Balinese offerings, which were placed on the ground outside every home, store, and temple. They're part of a particular strain of Hinduism practiced only on Bali. The trays themselves are about 4 X 4 inches, and as we walked the streets of Ubud we saw many women sitting on the front steps of their stores, weaving basket-trays for the next day's offering.
We met amazing people. We watched the sun set over the ocean at Ulu Watu and Tanah Lot. We marveled at the Kecak dancers and bought small piles of batik. We ate these painfully delicious banana pancakes by the little pool at Artini Cottages. Let me not waste too much time telling stories of "My Enchanted Days on Bali," since it's been done, it's all true, and I'm saving it for some essay sometime.
Let me instead remember that I wouldn't have gone on the trip if it hadn't been for Melissa.
I'm on spring break again, and this time I'm staying home in Cambridge, getting caught up on paper grading and novel-writing, cleaning out the closet, organizing many piles of papers that have accumulated over the past six months, drinking tea, and waiting out the winter. I'd feel sorry for myself except that yesterday, very casually on the phone, I reserved a spot in my godmother's cabin on a cruise to Alaska in July.
This means that this summer, I will spend over two weeks in France and Italy with my dearest friends and closest other family, the Cristofanis, return home to co-direct a summer camp, then scoot out to Seattle and spend a week with godmom Susan in Alaska, before returning to California to prepare for Burning Man.
I'm overflowing with gratitude to the people who love me enough to help make this kind of life possible. I work incredibly hard to pay for as much as I can, but I would never be able to do this kind of traveling if I didn't have generous help, and groups of people who believe in community traveling, sharing experiences, and the fundamental value of diving into the new, together. Sometimes being a writer means that others invest towards your uncertain future--offering you adventures or chances at solitude that will likely help your work. Many writers never feel the kind of support I do, financially or emotionally, and think that either (a) people like me were born with money or (b) we DO something in particular, like in a bartering system, to be given such opportunities. When I explain that my family was middle-middle class when I was young, with no money for international travel, and that I offer nothing in particular but my love, sense of wonder, and shared future wealth/experience with those who share with me now, it seems insane!
But it is real.
When I was 24, and had been working full-time at the Veteran's Hospital in West LA for two years, in addition to working nights performing with the Toledo Show, I decided I was ready for a change. I gave notice at my job and Melissa and I planned a trip to Thailand. On my last day at the VA, my coworkers threw a party. After I convinced them that the trip was actually rather inexpensive, I still was met with some incredulity.
"Why do you get to go on this trip?" one of the bosses asked me. "I've been working here fifteen years and never been on a trip like this."
"I get to go because I'm going," I said, as I'd run out of other explanations.
I'd told them that I was going into debt for it, that I wasn't sure what I'd do for money when I got back, but that I was certain I'd work it out. I'd told them that Melissa and I wanted to do this adventure together, and that neither of us had been to Asia at all before. I'd tried to convince them that it was an exercise in creative, as well as physical, freedom. But in the end, the truth was that I "got" to go because I was willing to, and because I had people in my life willing to help.
So today I extend my gratitude to everyone who has included me in their adventures, shared time and space and food and income with me, offered me chances to do things I wouldn't otherwise be able to do, and had faith in my ability to truly assimilate and benefit from these experiences. I also extend gratitude to myself, for staying open and receptive to these possibilities, for giving everything I can in return, for continuing to write, and for cultivating adventurous community.
Now, I'm going to turn the heat up and pretend it's May already...

Monday, March 3, 2008

Why We Need All the Kings Men

Saturday night I ventured down to Eliot Hall in Jamaica Plain to attend a fundraiser show for All The Kings Men. As a Boston performer in the alterna-sexy scene, I like supporting anyone who's willing to try out some new kind of performance. Okay, drag isn't "new." Women dressing up in male drag isn't at all new. Nothing about this show was really new--I'd seen most of the numbers before. But the reason why it strikes me as such is actually kind of complex.

When I lived and worked in the much more mainstream-sexy scene in L.A., performers who did comedic routines, and especially comedic routines that involved comments on gender, were not as respected as those who could do reasonably well-enacted plagiarisms of the Pussy Cat Dolls' music videos. It was somehow more important for dancers to attempt to live up to the hetero-normative gender ideals than to question them, play with them, or, God forbid, defy them. This ultimately got exhausting for me, even as I participated by dancing in shows that glorified the ultra-feminine. What's exhausting is just the lack of diversity in that scene.

Hence, my sense of the Kings Men as being "new." In a sort of historic reality, they are accessing many years of gender discourse, especially the very fun queer theory subfield of gender performance. But for someone who has seen a shitload of dancers and drag queens and performance art and sketch comedy and DIY burlesque, ATKM are a treat.

They aren't perfect--most of them can dance, most of them can act. A few of their sketches are a little cluttered. But when they're on, when they've hit something topical and perfect and uncomfortable and odd, and when their energy is high, they're an absolute delight. They did an incredible version of "SexyBack" that had moments of simple spoofing Hollywood video-dance, moments of actual sexiness, moments of seat-squirming chemistry between performers, and moments of just great unison choreography.

One of my favorites is "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," where two Men are dressed in jeans and T-shirts, obsessively combing their hair. The song is a gay anthem, yes, but these two dudes are totally not gay. At least, not at first. During the course of the song their attraction builds, and by the end everyone is cheering at their onstage kiss and adorable chase-my-ass exit. Women, dressed as closeted gay men, who then out themselves to fall in love. That ATKM can demonstrate the affectations of every sex/gender permutation--and it's true that a stereotypical feminine girl moves her body differently than a stereotypical flaming gay man--is not only impressive, it's hilarious.

They call themselves "Drag-based" performance, which is a great turn of phrase. One of their performers (almost?) never appears in drag--she's got long curly locks and plays the femme/female whenever one is needed. Their finale is a lip-synched "Thriller," which not only showcases their strongest performer (as Michael, of course) but gets all of them, as asexual zombies, dancing the absolutely MOST unsexified dance that ever made it big time on TV. Sure, there's pelvic thrusting, but it's Michael style--no real object, no real implied penis, and the "women zombies" in the original video do it too. The only one in obvious drag in that number is the one who plays Jackson, and his embodiment is perfect--nuanced with Jackson's very idiosyncratic mix of gendered movements--now macho, now effeminate, now something robotic and without genitalia.

So I like ATKM because they're good, and I like them because whether they mean to or not, they change the nature of the dialogue surrounding gender and peformance by reminding their audience of the incredibly varied, even infinite ways to enact/show/wear/embody sexuality, without its being tied up in male/male, male/female, female/female categories. You have no idea who's straight, gay, bi, trans, or some other more complicated, unlabeled sexual being, while you're watching. And it doesn't matter. You are allowed to want or not want them all.
This isn't just about the ultimate acceptance of the diversity of human sexuality, it's about getting everyone to take a closer look at their own costume, every day.