It's all in the wrist
Neil Greenberg makes the "queer male body" move.
Wed Jun 4 2008
Photograph: Chris Woltmann
There is queer and then there’s queer. Both implications—relating to oddness or sexuality—can apply to Neil Greenberg’s Really Queer Dance with Harps, in which the choreographer continues to explore terrain he first traversed in 2006’s Quartet with Three Gay Men: self-censorship. (In short, he wants none of it.)
“Part of the point of departure is something that Miguel Gutierrez said to me in an interview for Critical Correspondence,” Greenberg, 49, recalls over coffee. “He told me that my work had always been about the queer male body dancing, and it just rang true. That has always been a part of my dances: what’s been repressed, what’s been censored. I keep flashing back to a piece I made in 1997, Part Three (My Fair Lady), where I got to twirl like a boy’s not supposed to twirl.”
Greenberg also cites his experiences as a young dancer, when he was taught to create a continuous line from his forearm to the hand—no break in the wrist! “I decided,” he says with a smile, “to make this thing about the queer male body dancing a little more explicit.” His first attempt, the impressionistic study Quartet with Three Gay Men, also marked the first time he opened up his process of making movement by videotaping his dancers’ improvisations; formerly, he recorded only his own. Beginning Wednesday 11, that quartet will be reprised at Dance Theater Workshop, along with the new work.
For Really Queer Dance with Harps, which features eight dancers, three harpists and a score by Zeena Parkins, Greenberg filmed each cast member improvising during a 30-minute stretch. In preparation, he spoke to his dancers about achieving awareness of movement patterns and about making a concerted effort to follow the thread of what could be deemed, by ordinary standards, too ambiguous or exaggerated.
“Sexuality and gender are so inflated in our world, which is why dance is such a censored event for men,” Greenberg says. “We think of it as both an effeminate activity and a queer activity and, first of all, so what? Why would either of those things be bad? Whereas there’s a certain strain of PR that goes, ‘Dance is not effeminate—look at how butch these dancers are!’ But we all have feminine qualities.”
Greenberg also became entranced by the prospect of allowing his movement choices to veer toward oddity and subtlety; he found himself wanting to retain the vague, elusive quality he observed in the videotaped improvisations and, in the final product, to trade assertiveness for something more diaphanous. “We’ve been working on not overdrawing things,” he says. “As we learn improvised material, it becomes more fully formed, but if we want to make it more of what it was, the point isn’t to draw with Magic Marker if it was originally drawn with a fine pencil.”
Expanding his improvisational practice to include his dancers has also been a way for Greenberg to challenge his own choreographic process. “I think I got bored with my own movement,” he says. “It just got to the point where I knew what it was; patterns are patterns, and left to my own devices the movement was going to stay within a certain range. As a teacher, my maxim to my students is, ‘Make it more of what it is.’ So this is my way of making a certain part of my work more of what it is—the less boldly drawn.”
Greenberg began choreographing in 1979, when he joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He taught for 20 years at Purchase College, but despite his popularity was never offered a full-time position; recently, he joined the faculty at UC Riverside. When he noted that the institution was looking for a professor in experimental choreography, Greenberg applied immediately. Laughingly, he recalls his initial reaction: “You mean I don’t have to hide that aspect? I don’t have to cover that up? That’s what they want?”
At the moment, he is bicoastal, since part of the Riverside position includes research time. “In the summers, I can be here, so we’ll see how it all pans out,” he says. But so far, Greenberg is pleasantly surprised by Los Angeles. “It’s like New York was when I first moved here in 1976—it’s not Disneyfied. It still has that sort of seediness, and what seedy means to me is that there are still possibilities. It means that everything isn’t so overpriced and that things can spring up and things do spring up. I wonder how long it will last.”
Dance by Neil Greenberg is at Dance Theater Workshop Wed 11–Jun 21.