Like drag artists, they play with the fluidity of identity, the wry (and sometimes tragic) humor of a recontextualized pop song, the telegraphing of something thorny and nuanced in a way that still lands with a nightclub crowd, the rage behind a smile.
Add young local choreographer Elby Brosch to that lineage: His first full-length dance work, “Drama Tops, this is for you,” drinks deeply from the well of drag and was largely built in minuteslong segments for nightclubs and drag shows. Its director? Ben Putnam, aka BenDeLaCreme, who rocketed to national consciousness as a beloved contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Unfortunately, I’m not supposed to tell you about one of its most striking moments. It’s a music choice — a strong music choice — that drops a “fun” pop song, one meant to be cheeky, into a moment where it sounds gut-clenchingly vicious.
In fact, I’m not supposed to tell you about any of the music choices.
“It’s all music that people are going to know,” Brosch added. “That’s important to me. If I know they know it, I have information about what they know — and I can lean into that or push back against it.”
What I am allowed to tell you: “Drama Tops” is primarily a duet about masculinity, toxic and otherwise, with ruminations on sports, sex and athleticism. And some of those athletics are brutal.
“Imagine if two queer boys went to a gym —” dancer Shane Donohue began.
“— and only used each other to work out,” Brosch finished.
The two climb up and around each other, doing crunches and yoga, in a fraught, push-pull relationship. Are they building each other up or tearing each other down? Is this symbiosis or parasitism?
Brosch began coming out as trans eight years ago; he started taking testosterone two years later. “Drama Tops,” he said, came out of the boulder-sized bundle of questions that followed: “How society viewed my body, the expectations when it was perceived as female, then people’s confusion about my body, then me passing as male with all these new, other expectations I was supposed to meet.”
That sounds like a lot — and it is — but Brosch realized those questions are not confined to transgender experiences.
“Some of the hardest parts of being trans are actually super relatable,” he said. “Not feeling comfortable in your own body, not understanding or accepting what society has painted on you because your body looks a certain way. Who doesn’t experience that?”
When Brosch first started coming out, the most common response he remembers was: “I don’t understand.”
“I want to make this understandable to people,” he said. Hence the testing bits at nightclubs, the pop songs, the attempt to feed complex questions through the translation machine of dance — it’s all an attempt to make delicate, subtle ideas more accessible. Like (some) drag does.
Dance has always been a safe harbor for Brosch — even when he wasn’t on the best of terms with his body and what was expected of him as a little girl in small-town Florida.
His parents were musicians (mom: violin, dad: trumpet) and nudged him into ballet when he was 10. “Growing up, I did not fit in socially with the other girls, nor did I want to,” he said. “But the structure of ballet was really comforting.”
In a world of ambiguity and questions, ballet was predictable: first plié, then tendu and so on. Soon, he’d cling to it like a life preserver.
At 15, both of Brosch’s parents were diagnosed with cancer. His father died. For six months, Brosch pretty much stopped talking, except to his mother. Puberty had begun and his body was changing in troubling ways.
“Ballet saved me,” Brosch said. “It was the only place I wanted to be; I could have become so disconnected from my body, but I was forced to use it, work on technique, confront it. And dance was this beautiful place where you weren’t allowed to speak!”
He stuck with dance, studying at the University of Illinois (where his father was once composer in residence for the dance department), moving to Seattle in 2012, then starting to dance in works by Cherdonna Shinatra and, eventually, BenDeLaCreme.
In the drag orbit, he learned about comedy, timing, how to subvert drama. One bit he and Donohue played with in nightclubs had them leaning in, as if to kiss — then Donohue shoved Brosch’s face in his armpit.
“We can do a five-minute duet in a nightclub and have people screaming the whole time, then do that same five minutes at a dance festival and people quietly chuckle,” Brosch said. “That’s so interesting to us. It really feeds the work. We’re still learning.”
“Drama Tops, this is for you” by Elby Brosch. Jan. 28-30; Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave., Seattle; $15-$25; 800-838-3006, brownpapertickets.com