Known as the nation’s first critically acclaimed transgender modern-dance choreographer, Sean Dorsey has been challenging the dance world’s deep-seated notions of gender — from ballet’s gendered clothing requirements to the wording of recorded greetings in theaters — for nearly 20 years. His latest creation with Sean Dorsey Dance, “Boys in Trouble,” combines elements of beauty — including a pointe solo Dorsey says has produced audible gasps in previous performances — with moments of humor and humanity that defy the gender binary and have prompted emotional responses throughout the company’s recent tour.
The work is also timely, as the Supreme Court began its new term this week by taking up several cases that could have major ramifications for the LGBTQ community. Ahead of the Seattle run of “Boys in Trouble” starting Oct. 17 at Velocity Dance Center, here’s what the San Francisco-based Dorsey had to say about how arts organizations can be more inclusive, the three words that can make an audience feel more welcome, and the young dancers giving him hope for the future. Excerpts of the conversation follow.
Tell me about “Boys in Trouble” and the impetus behind it and how it’s been received so far.
Sean Dorsey: “Boys in Trouble” is in many ways very much about this moment in America, and it’s also fundamentally about the roots of America … there is an urgency behind it in cracking open still largely censored topics like toxic masculinity and white supremacy and acceptable constructs of trans-ness. And it’s been really amazing, as we have traveled with the work … to have experienced such an outpouring of love and gratitude and deeply emotional response from audiences whether they are in Los Angeles or Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Issues of masculinity and gender and trans-ness are not necessarily things that the dance community has always made room for. How have you busted in and made it happen? Do you think things are changing?
Some part of me does marvel, looking back now at myself 15 years ago, when I was always the only trans person in the room. Whether it was at a class or a workshop or an audition or a dance conference or a community arts meeting or a funding panel, I was always, always, always the only trans person, and there was such a — not just profound — a total isolation and loneliness, sadness, but also anger associated with that, because the modern-dance field was and is still today so religious about its adherence to gender normativity, to heteronormativity, to behaving and creating according to the gender binary. … I now finally see so many young trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming dance artists coming up, and … they’re starting to make work and … being really bold … I also frankly feel that the modern-dance field has actually changed very little. I think that the people within institutions have personally grown to — many of them — be very trans-positive or to have personal values that are trans-positive. But I don’t see those values being acted upon within their institutions.
Right. And I think part of that is also just that the gender striations of dance are so deeply ingrained.
So deeply ingrained … Many forms of dance — especially modern dance and ballet … have been built from the beginning on not just assumptions but requirements of heterosexuality and gender conformity and the binary, so it’s no small adjustment that’s needed, it’s really examining some of the core principles and structures … and then [also] how I experience a lot of [how] change happens is in the interpersonal, and so every person that I get to teach in a class, every person I meet as part of a national dance conference, these human-to-human, personal conversations and relationships are also really so key to transformation …. It’s also about non-trans people or cisgender people stepping up and having conversations with each other and lovingly challenging each other — you know, [asking] “Hey, how many trans folks do you have on your board?” Or: “Do you have any trans faculty in your dance program?”
And those are also really practical things people can think about. Are there others?
Many theaters still have a prerecorded announcement that starts with “Ladies and gentlemen.” So we ask them [in our tech rider] to either rerecord it or have somebody live on a microphone simply saying, “Good evening, everyone” … not only welcoming people in the audience who happen to be ladies or gentlemen. There are many other people in our audiences … there may be non-trans people who just don’t like that. There may be cisgender women who don’t want to be called “ladies.” So that’s a change that potentially costs nothing and that can be done immediately.
So often … in a ballet class, the women are told to do one port de bras or arm gesture and then the men are told to do another. And presenting those options without being tied to a gender allows dancers to train and embody a far greater breadth of movement than restricting them to gendered gestures.
It’s interesting because what you’re describing is so common-sense, but at the same time it seems like it opens up more possibilities for everyone.
That’s the thing. I think you’re expanding people’s access to movement vocabulary, to movement information … I witness in the dance field that so many non-transgender — so many cisgender men — will have a way that their gesture just loses some of its life force from the forearm or wrist down, because they’re not encouraged from their earliest training to have every sinew and muscle and cell in their wrists and fingers involved in the movement.
I’d love to hear more about “Boys in Trouble.” I don’t know how much you want to give away.
There are a lot of surprises in the work that catch the audience pleasantly off-guard, whether they are uproariously hilarious or moments of unexpected beauty … and then moments of pain or sadness that I think also catch people off-guard because they’re so relatable and real and human. So this is not abstract modern dance that’s terribly intellectual … This is really deeply human work … it’s full, full-throttle dance. You see us dripping with sweat like nine minutes into the piece, which I find very satisfying as an audience member …. And there’s also a lot of very sassy queer humor in the work. We see a lot of beautiful partnering and touch that I think we also don’t get to see — people who present as masculine being tender and touching each other and partnering each other in a really intimate, skilled, human, loving way … This is the show to see if you’re longing to see trans and queer truth on stage. This is the show to see if you love outrageous humor. And this is the show to see at this moment in America.
Sean Dorsey Dance: “Boys in Trouble,” Oct. 17-20; Velocity Dance Center, 1621 12th Ave., Seattle; $20-$50; velocitydancecenter.org