Review: Look Askew – A Musical Revue (2002)

Completed as a reviewing assignment while studying away at the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program in New York City in 2002

Movement Research & Judson Memorial Church co-presented a special kick-off performance to celebrate their 11 years of partnership on Monday September 30th at Judson Church. The program featured a wide variety of dance performers and choreographers, but MonstahH and the duet between Yvonne Meier and Ishmael Houston-Jones lent themselves most readily to being read through a lens of identity politics.

MonstahH presented THIS (2002), described as being “an exploration of embracing one’s higher being, mind, body and spirit.” The artist himself engineered all music, choreography and costume. MonstahH has developed a reputation for being daring, outrageous and edgy, and his funky and quirky exploration of his higher being, mind, body and spirit (and one might assume, his identity and sense of higher self) served as an example of this boldness.

The dance is a project coming out of a production company that he shares with his partner, called The Quintessence of Hip, a name which suggests his allegiance to the outrageous, the daring, and savvy. The work radiated with joie de vivre. Someone in the audience said to me that it was simply a liberated gay man celebrating life. Nothing he did seemed chosen to be particularly provocative, but rather as something the artist wholeheartedly enjoyed doing, like acrobatically performing on heel-less black rubber platforms – upon which he seemed to look a little bit like a two-legged centaur.

The following performance piece, performed and created by Yvonne Meier and Ishmael Houston-Jones, overtly dealt with the DECONSTRUCTION of dance, but also had undertones of racial politics. The piece was also the only for the night to be equally based on dance and text, with both middle-aged dancers mainly marking dance moves. They walked about casually at other times as they dramatically “created” the piece on the spot, talking to each other and the audience throughout the piece. Houston-Jones, however, did not speak much during the performance, relegated to the position of accepting choreography and instructions from Meier.

On the surface, it was a quirky piece (involving Houston-Jones eventually stripping naked, rolling in dirt, and wearing a “belt” of nuts around his waist, which promptly fell off after a few sautés). Underneath, it was potentially more disturbing, presenting the opportunity for audience members to recall the exploitation and exoticisation of black people, and black men, by Europeans. But on a layer even beneath that, it seemed there was something of much more character and substance, with these two highly respected artists coming together to do a farcical piece, no doubt aware of both the obscenity and hilarity of what they were doing, and being comfortable enough with themselves and with each other as people and performers to willingly and playfully create and perform the piece.

Look Askew, produced by the recently re-grouped TOSOS (the other side of silence) II, was a benefit concert presented at the LGBT Centre on Tuesday October 1st, 2002. TOSOS II is a professional theatre company dealing specifically with the experience of being queer. As such, the issues of identity – particularly identity involving gender and sexuality – were paramount. What was interesting was that despite a multi-racial cast, issues of race were not dealt with at all, and the entire show presented only gender and sexuality issues.

The Women’s Project delivered songs primarily dealing with the woes and joys of being women, while the Broadway Queered and Gay Hits sections took several well-known (and less well-known, if one was not a Broadway musical connoisseur) Broadway standards, and “queered” them. That is, given the performing (and non-performing, in the case of some) identities of the cast and their delivery of the songs, the tunes took on a completely different meaning and readily lent themselves to being directly appropriate to the queer experience. They also presented works written exclusively for queer characters. An example of this was the number performed by Chris Andersson and Michael Lynch as two drag queens. This directly and explicitly addressed the issue of how one performs one’s gender through constructed means like garb, make-up, manner of speech, and gait. Though the relationship between the two performers’ characters is not readily apparent from the excerpt they performed, one can also assume that they are not simply just transvestites, but gay (wo)men who may or may not have been involved with each other. Once again, despite the different racial backgrounds of the two characters, it was issues of gender and sexuality which were most salient for the audience, with issues of race being almost unimportant in the context of the presentation.

A later number, which came in the Tosos 2 Come section toward the end, demonstrated the difficulties of gay men in the context of being in the military during the Second World War. Two of the army men are involved in a same-sex relationship, but hide immediately when their fellow officers enter the space they are occupying. They alter their performance of their gender roles awkwardly but decisively as they change from the intimate setting, to a public all-male setting in which their union seems to be inappropriate and unacceptable. They are gentle and demonstrative with each other in private, stereotypically “feminine”. When their comrades enter, however, they begin their performance of more macho “male” gender roles.

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