Monday, April 11, 2011

Gender/Drag/Truth and Lies

Gender representation in the performing arts has long been an interest of mine. Early in my dance career I had the honor of being cast in roles that Bill T. Jones created for himself, initiating interesting conversations about what it meant for a white woman to take on the testosterone driven roles originated and performed by a black man in the 1980’s. I grew into these roles over the years I performed them, and because it would never have been possible for me to perform them “like Bill” they became pathways for me to uncover my own relationship to strength, power, aggression, masculinity and femininity.
Later when I was invited into the dramatic world of the Martha Graham Company, I bristled against the glamorous heavy makeup and fake hair, which was required to embody female icons in her theater. It wasn’t until several years later, when I started working with Richard Move who impersonates Martha Graham, that I began to recognize the characteristic Graham Make-up as a form of drag, and to see drag not as a tool of oppression but of expression.

Feminist theorist Judith Butler suggested in the early 90s that gender itself is a product of layered symbolism that defines us from the outside in. She claims that culture defines and redefines both femininity and masculinity through our collective acts and desires. She describes a gender contingency in which “inner truth” becomes impossible to define due to the impact of our external acts on the formation of our interior selves. Butler points out that transvestites represent a “false” exterior costume, which misrepresents their “true” anatomy. Simultaneously their anatomy is a “false” exterior to the “truth” of their self-identity. Butler’s theories relate to the performance of gender in daily life, but they are easily extended into a theatrical arena as well, especially when looking at artists like Klein or Graham. For these artists, the line between life and theater, between artist and art, is hard to define.

Klein once said that, “A painter should only paint a single masterpiece, himself, constantly.” His admiration for the daily practice of art making, and the lack of separation between art and life, which that creates, is one aspect of his work that continues to draw me to him. I wonder how this connection between art and life played out for Klein in relation to his gender expression. He was a small man, not physically imposing, but a black belt in judo who was always full of energy. His work is often seen as misogynistic, though his wife and many of the female models he worked with claim that he was full of spiritual integrity, enthusiasm and joy when he created the work in question. While I aim to dismantle the problematic gendered hierarchy in Klein’s performance art through how I reference the 1960 Anthropometries in Into the Void, I hope to do so by complicating the issue and posing new questions, not by solving or underlining the binary nature of male/female, artist/subject tension in most art historical studies.

I recently took a break from Klein to complete a run of performances with Richard Move in which he performed, as Martha, a reenactment of an interview that was recorded in 1963 between Graham and dance critic Walter Terry. In other words he played the icon as an aging woman, whose physical powers had peaked and whose mind vacillated between her characteristic brilliance and impending alcoholism. Richard and I have had many conversations about his process of characterization. While he is certainly playing a specific character who he has studied in videos and books, when he performs in drag he is also accessing what he feels is part of his integral feminine self. His drag impersonations are not campy, and this one in particular was performed with an integrity and personal investment in what it actually feels like to be an aging artist, regardless of gender.
I danced in this production alongside Katherine Crockett who has been a principle dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company since the mid 90s. While the Graham make-up represents a form of fun theatrical drag to me, for Crockett it is an embellishment of a genuine expression of how she asserts her femininity. Looking at the stage I recently inhabited I found myself fascinated by the complexity of the gender expressions before me; Move and Crocket, one biologically male and one female, equally at home in their masks of female signifiers, The brilliant actress Lisa Kron, who played Walter Terry, willingly, but purely professionally made up in male drag, and myself struggling to fill the “female” mask I dutifully wore.

I wondered about the shift between how we had arrived at the theater, and who we played on stage.

I wondered about the thin veil between honesty and make-believe in all of our expressions.

I wondered about the security we find in being ourselves verses the security we find in abandoning our selves to dress, make our selves up, and embody another character.

For each of these performers, which aspects of life and performance are actually Acts?

I bring all of these questions back Into the Void through both my mind and body.

When I perform as Klein in drag, like Move’s Martha, I am not intending to be campy. I am interested in Klein’s artistic ideas and how they intersect with his character. As a female artist, for me to embody Klein’s persona is to perform in drag, but the reason I started this whole project is because so many of Klein’s ideas resonate with me, regardless of gender.
The work does explore the power of male signifiers as juxtaposed with the multifaceted gender expressions of my talented cast. The character I play is pushed up against my fellow performers who embody both themselves, as complex humans containing vast possibilities, and abstract concepts from Klein’s oeuvre that the individual performers relate to. When the signifiers of my drag performance are dismantled it is not intended to flip the character’s gender expression. Instead it is my intention to point out the incredible complexity in each of us who are constantly seeking the truth that exists somewhere in the space between what is inside our hearts and on our backs, between what is in our eyes and on our face.

Catherine Cabeen and Company

Into the Void

Thu – Sat | Apr 28 – 30 | 8pm

$20 general | $12 under 25

Inspired by postmodern visual artist Yves Klein, Into the Void mixes visual arts, drag performance and precise choreography performed by 5 dancers to evoke the complex gender politics of Klein’s work.

Featuring collaborators: Michael Cepress (costume design), Kane Mathis (music), Susan Robb (sculpture), Tivon Rice (digital media) and Connie Yun (lighting).

Info & tickets @

Reference to: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Thinking
Gender, (New York: Routledge, 1990).

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