Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Drag is Dancing

Editor's Note: Ennis Smith is another talented writer from my Spring '07 Writing on Dance group at Dance Theater Workshop, and I'm very pleased that he sent me the following review of a performance we attended together back last October. This piece has been published in the January 2008 issue of Attitude: The Dancer's Magazine, and you'll find more of Ennis's excellent writing there. (Click here to discover more about Attitude!) You can enjoy Ennis's blogging at Smokin' Room and Botticelli Black Boy.

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The Drag is Dancing

by Ennis Smith
Attitude: The Dancer's Magazine, January 2008


The East is Red
by The Legendary House of Ninja
at Dance Theater Workshop, New York, October 4-5, 2007

Concept - Benny Ninja
Written - Paris Ninja
Stage Direction - Paris Ninja
Videography/Graphics – Angel eyes Ninja
Music – Chip-Chop Ninja
Choreography – Benny Ninja and The House of Ninja
Props – George
Costumes – House of Ninja
Voice Over - Archie Ninja, Eileen Ninja, Benny Ninja, Paris Ninja
Stage Assistant – Mikey Ninja

It made perfect sense to shante, not walk, to your seat at the first performance of the Legendary House of Ninja’s The East is Red, a presentation of Dance Theater Workshop’s Studio Series on November 5, 2007; to a sinuous techno throb, one young patron earned cheers from the audience when she threw a few voguing moves in the direction of her friends. DTW asked us to check our shoes at the door, a move designed to preserve the floor but one that always loosens one’s reserve (and summons the trauma of countless high school sock-hops). Here, one’s stocking feet created another conduit for the beat as the bass coursed from our toes to our expectant hearts.

Welcome to the drag ball by way of Chelsea, where the ghosts of our youth weren’t the only ones being conjured. As the multi-generational audience leaned against the studio-length barre or seated themselves, some cross-legged on the floor, I wondered if they pondered a tradition reaching back to the 1920s: across the country, in spaces clandestine (basement bars) and mundane (convention centers and Shriner’s halls, ironically, under the protection of local law enforcement) gay men and women dolled up like Vegas Cinderellas or in traditional formal attire, found a haven where they could be their out-and-proud selves as they danced and swayed until dawn’s early hours. After the ball the assemblage of bank presidents, milkmen and secretaries returned to closeted American lives where fear of exposure, blackmail and ostracism tempered the previous night’s high spirits like bills in the mail.

Cut to the hyper-glitzed 1980s, and a drag ball culture populated almost exclusively by ethnic gay males who helped usher a dance craze as galvanic as the twist. Voguing, a semaphoric explosion of dance culled from street acrobatics and fashion runways, proved the perfect metaphor for a Reagan-era Me-Decade brimming with aspiration, glamour and conspicuous consumption. Those of us just off the bus at Port Authority could get a healthy dose of live fabulousness a few blocks north at grottos like Sally’s Hideaway on 43rd Street, Washington Square Park, the West Village piers or a plethora of drag venues stretching up to Harlem, a phenomenon that reached its apotheosis with the release of Jenny Livingston’s 1987 documentary Paris is Burning, and the popularity of a little ditty called “Vogue” by you-know-who.

Dance still fuels the houses, but more altruistic goals (mentoring of young gays, STD prevention and transgender awareness) occupy equal prominence as they strive to endure. The East is Red opened with a tribute to the late Willie Ninja, the star dancer whose appearances in music videos (Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue”), and with major dance companies (Karole Armitage, Doug Elkins and David Neuman, among others) helped catapult the vogue into a larger arena; such evocations tap into the emotional history of queerness, since the vogue’s ascendance paralleled an era shrouded by the deaths of many from AIDS.

A whisk of red curtains transported us to the Orient and a procession of young geishas whose unison dance oozed with placid submission that turned out to be a ruse; with the words, “now bring it,” Isis Ninja (in a role suggesting the knowing court eunuch) prompted each to spread the largesse of their special gifts, a command the young women embraced by treating the audience to dazzling displays of the vogue’s many modes—runway, breakdancing and freestyle.

When the men, or sensei, entered, the plot thickened: in this court, the only way to squelch rogue factions intent on overthrowing this fictitious House of Ninja was through battle. In an artfully comic sequence that was one part Peking Opera, nine parts cheesy Kung Fu western, dancers paired off for a series of duels, some making real-time body contact in traditional martial arts fashion, while others assayed a slow motion style loaded with subtler physical attacks. Here, a look loaded with “shade” (meant to convey insult through indifference) did as much damage as a chop to the jaw; a deftly pointed foot or lightning whip of the head showed the enemy who the real men were with style and attitude.

The work’s potential was apparent. The tropes found in Asian theater have natural counterparts in house movement (butch/femme equals samurai/geisha), and the notion of one ethnic group taking on the cultural traits of another is an intriguing one. When it worked, the payoffs were golden: a giant red dragon pulsed through the proceedings, and the use of prerecorded dialogue recreated the off-kilter sensation of watching a Bruce Lee movie riddled with bad dubbing. When it didn’t (at the beginning, the quartet of dancing women lacked the necessary precision, though that could have been opening night nerves), the Asian trappings felt tacked on despite the late Ninja’s citing the Far East as his initial inspiration. Underneath the yards of silk and brocade beat hearts struggling to shake their big city roots, and why should they? This homemade art form has a vitality all its own; such dance doesn’t need a makeover to loan it legitimacy.

Still, glints of what a deeper exploration of multi-ethnic identity might yield could be seen in some of the performances. Current house head Benny Ninja is a slithery snake reincarnated as a dancer, with shoulder isolations that reminded me of that great bit of dialogue from Fred Astaire’s The Bandwagon: “She came at me in sections.” Whether pouring himself across the floor or disseminating wonderful business with a freakishly long Fu Manchu moustache, this performer embodied an eerie otherness that taunted and amused. Playing a pair of precocious twins, Pito and Javier Ninja (by now you’ve noted all members of the house share the same surname) made a spectacular late impression with fluid splits, extensions and fingers so well articulated they could be spied a city block away—all to the accompaniment of Chip Chop Ninja’s hysterical remix of Peggy Lee’s “We are Siamese” from Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp.

DTW is to be commended for its help in developing this work. But the studio’s fluorescent lights and pristine floors felt anathema to that which cried out for a touch of slightly soiled inscrutability. Keeping up with the times is tricky business, but as The Legendary House of Ninja searches for ways to propel drag ball culture and the idiosyncratic dance that springs from it to new heights, it mustn’t forget all the previous eras from which the tradition sprang. As The East is Red develops, let’s hope it draws from more of its resonant all-American history, one that might perfume the air like stolen kisses in the dark.

(c)2007, Ennis Smith

Ennis Smith is a MFA graduate of The New School. His work there won him a National Arts Club’s Literary Scholarship in Nonfiction. He earned his BA at Empire State College, where he was the recipient of a Richard Porter Leach Fellowship. His nonfiction piece, "The Man with the Toy Face," was published on the website Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood; his memoir piece, "The Rapunzel Effect," was recognized as an outstanding work of nonfiction by In Our Own Write. Other published work: dance criticism in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine.

As an actor, Ennis has appeared at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Kennedy Center, The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, in plays ranging from Arthur Miller to Shakespeare to Fats Waller. Through his work in cabaret and pop music, he’s played engagements at Joe’s Pub, Fez, Danny’s Skylight Room, Cornelia Street Café, The Triad, Odette’s in New Hope, PA and New York’s Town Hall at the Sixth and Seventh Annual Cabaret Conventions.

For his volunteer work with Lifebeat’s Hearts and Voices (Musicians Against AIDS) in 2000, Ennis was the featured subject on PBS's In The Life.

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