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Ladylike Performance Festival

at Link's Hall, February 20-22

By Carol Burbank

What's in a gender? The answer lies not in our genes, or even in the stars, but in the mating rituals we prefer. And these erotic, comic dances have everything to do with the stories surrounding our heroic personas--the epic selves striding or simpering through our days, on the prowl for validation, power, maybe even a gold medal in love.

Last weekend the Ladylike Performance Festival offered a clever, sometimes lyrical reality check for such fantasies. Dancer-performers from Philadelphia and Chicago gathered at Link's Hall to twist traditional gender roles into parodies of film noir, westerns, bird courtship, and the femme fatale. Curator Asimina Chremos, originally from Philadelphia, deserves a lot of credit for showcasing a kind of drag different from the harsh parody of glamour most people associate with the form. Funny, haunting, sexy, goofy, and magnificently irreverent, this evening of gender-fuck performance art stood out for its diversity and virtuosic light touch.

Chicagoan Fausto Fernos was Faustina, our emcee and instructor. Faustina improvised a loosely female, sardonically male, very queer patter that owed much to the magical aesthetic of the Radical Faeries. As much a ritual leader as an emcee, Faustina roller-skated into the space wearing only a voluminous aluminum foil cape and matching black bra and underpants. Floating comfortably beyond the edge of excess, she gave everyone permission to let go and laugh. In this flirtatious roller-goddess persona or as a psychic reader in white satin suit, she kept the evening's energy casual but focused, teaching one brave audience member to eat fire like the agitprop Lesbian Avengers (or Radical Faeries), giving all of us our daily horoscopes, and almost as an afterthought introducing us to the performers.

Philadelphia exported two remarkable dancers, Paule Turner and Grace Mi-He Lee. Turner, who just completed his MFA at Temple University, proved that an apprentice can teach the masters how to move. He performed She's Out of Her Tree, an excerpt from his longer film noir fantasy about Duchess, a seedy, cynical, desperate woman who goes on the lam after killing her husband.

Duchess confronted so many stereotypes of whiteness, blackness, and womanliness in her brief piece that my head was spinning. She dances with Graham-like openness, her gestures large, her back and arms arched as if each step were a leap, masculine in her shape and strength but claiming the power of the feminine archetype. She smokes like Greta Garbo--slowly, as if every breath were a luxury--as her lips sparkle eerily, sequined lipstick glittering in the red glow of a cigarette. She growls out her story in weird half rhymes and poetic African-American slang or spits out the ordinary details of daily life, setting her tacky coat and tattered virtue against the flashes of a coy drag-queen moue. Nothing is real; all of it's real. Transcending simple drag illusion, Turner creates a hybrid gender with its own theatrical space--not unlike Chicago's Gurlene Hussey/Doug Stapleton.

Grace Mi-He Lee doesn't so much fuck with gender as turn a heterosexual mythic figure on its head, animating a "choreographic libretto," Voila, written for her by noted choreographer Deborah Hay. Lee's every grunt, chant, and speech is a visceral, often comic beat using her entire body, as she transforms Hay's scripted movements, sounds, moods, and text into a carefully abstract parody of a bad John Wayne movie--sans coherent narrative. In her tight brocade cowgirl costume and big-as-Texas hat, Lee clip-clops around the edges of the Link's Hall space with great seriousness, as if a children's game of horsey had turned into a long journey; stopping occasionally in midstride, her legs spread in an interrupted "canter," she alertly surveys some great expanse beyond our understanding.

Macho cowboy travels are only part of the dance, however. Eventually she arrives at a mug of water on a chair--thirsty, she lifts the mug in a slow toast and holds it there, far from her mouth, gulping as if drinking the idea of water and gasping in a great "aaaah" at the end as if entirely satisfied. She tells a story about a bird, a man, and a prophecy three times, each time using a different persona, once in near gibberish. She howls like an Indian chanting--mourning, crouched on the stage, arms wide, embracing nothing. By the time she ends the piece, clip-clopping in a circle on her imaginary horse, she's created a remarkable landscape shaped by her intelligence and our macho myth of the frontier.

Chremos explores the world of animal courtship and interspecies lust in My Ladybird, a coarse, smart-ass, graceful work that camps up straight courtship with a feminist's sense of humor. Her lean form encased in a black sheath with a bouffant ring of feathers around her hips, her face half-masked with a bright beak and feathers, Chremos dances in one high-heeled shoe and one toe shoe, explaining with birdlike coyness that both are painful but they make her feel sexy. Chremos's physical strength, her total commitment to the jerky, raucous-voiced bird persona, and her smart comic timing turn the bird/human foolishness into an arch game.

She tumbles to the ground with the limp abandon of a landing gull, stalks across the stage like a raging flamingo, and hovers like a baleful raven with balletic skill. She wryly links human "femininity" and bird life by singing love songs about birds from folk tradition and dancing to "Polly" by Nirvana and a nearly nonsensical tune by the ever bouncy Nancy Sinatra (who supplies the title song). As Nancy croons, Chremos's strutting, squawking bird persona seduces--or is seduced by--the big, friendly Doggyboy (Rico Hewson). Even before Doggyboy bounds onstage, playing with his bone like a detached phallus, it's clear this courtship has more to do with men's and women's animal natures than with animals in love. The bird's and dog's comic, gangly, nose-in-butt, flap-wiggle-hop mating dance ends by producing unexpected offspring--a wind-up duck, which they contentedly watch and wind, watch and wind.

The evening closed with Paradiddle, an energetic parody of seduction by Chicago husband-and-wife team Atalee Judy and Robert Hyman. This is their first collaboration, and it retains the raw but pleasurable edges of experimentation. Hyman, a drummer, beats out a paradiddle--a rhythmic sequence changed when different instruments or hands play different beats. Dressed in sexy, cartoonish costumes, Judy desperately tries to seduce the music or the musician, taking on the roles of glamorous star, exotic non-Western slut, savage, and punk. Her dancing is vigorous and funny, and Hyman cleverly manipulates the tone of the dance, expressing his rejection of the would-be seducer in loud booms that violently repel her. Despite the sometimes muddy narrative--the drumming and the drummer are alternately the object of interest--it was fun to see Judy throw herself playfully into these stereotypes. Their high-energy, noisy, "fuck me now" game topped the evening's more sophisticated performances with a comic frisson.

If festivals like this one lasted longer, they could find larger audiences and train them to expect more from performance artists. Good gender play is hard to find in both performance art and dance, because the codes that help make sense of these genres are so often sexist in themselves and so often difficult to transcend. The skillful irreverence displayed during the Ladylike festival is a rarity, seemingly the province of a young generation of dancers and performance artists. Unfortunately their work takes form in transitory events and tiny venues like this one, dependent on cobbled-together foundation funding and audiences of friends and workshop participants.

But if festivals like this one take hold, they might change the stereotyped codes that limit our personal and artistic courtship rituals. Chremos plans to continue the Ladylike fest as an annual tradition. More power to her--and to anyone willing to parody gender fantasies for Chicago audiences, christened by Faustina "gentlemen, ladies, and the rest of us who fall in between."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fausto Fernos uncredited photo.

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