It’s really hard for me to imagine any more sublime calling than one to become a hot humorous trapeze artist. The Wau Wau Sisters’ last act, in which they swung from trapezes to in leopard-print, really blew my mind. That evening with them, James Tigger! Ferguson, Julie Atlas Muz, and Taylor Mac was, for me, hands down the most exciting event at this year’s TBA, in terms of the crazy things our bodies and our imaginations can manage.
That said, the chat with the five of them plus Zebra from Portland’s Sissyboy may well have come in second. It involved far fewer props, more clothes, and was generally more sedate, but it was a great pleasure to hear these six people talk about their art. For those of you who missed it, here’s a pretty extensive summary.
The moderator began the chat with a question about the concept of “New Burlesque,” a term to which the performers responded with mild antipathy. They each expressed a degree of discomfort with overtheorizing their craft, but spoke with a great deal of intelligence and insight about it. Julie was particularly uninterested in titles; she said, “Say whatever you want about me, but I can’t let it define my work”. Tigger explained that his art drew its energy from the spontaneity of acts that just happened in the back of a bar with real people, and that deconstruction was absurd because it was precisely this looseness, lack of codification and definition which made the art vital. There appeared to be a general discomfort with and dislocation from the term, and several of the performers admitted that they had researched it before coming so they would have some idea what it meant. Adrian Wau pointed out that it was generally externally applied and that while they had the critical background to understand the relationship of the term to the postmodern era, it wasn’t particularly helpful to them. They did indeed have the critical background to discuss these issues and to theorize extensively in this brief conversation.
Despite the discomfort with the concept of a clear movement, they were all aware of a something special going on on the streets of New York, of which they were a part. Julie said that for her what New Burlesque meant was having an international family with a shared aesthetic, which she said, was comprised of a love of glitter. The Burlesque has traditionally been a low art form, and she insisted that such terms are inherently restrictive. “Hallelujah,” she said. “Put me in the gutter.” Julie also pointed out that it’s a little fallacial to call burlesque new, since it’s always been a presence in some form. Tigger added, “It’s all so ridiculous and absurd that you want to dress it up and fuck with it.”
The moderator asked about what he saw as an underlying sweetness in these performers’ intentions. He said that they seemed less aggressive and ironic than their predecessors. Julie replied that in a press release she had written of her colleagues as the “most outrageously loving artists in NYC.” Tigger added that, “Outrage without love is just not interesting.” He spoke of his love of his audience, as well, which he explained as a basic form of respect. “I never want to be above entertaining,” he said.
Adrian spoke of the cultural need to make a burlesque of all sorts of things in the world, to go to ridiculous extremes to unravel what we think we know. She called this aesthetic “deep and broad,” extending into a variety of arts. Zebra said that he felt that people no longer trust the mainstream media and are looking for some kind of happening that will get them out of their homes and speaking on the streets. There was a sense that this particular incarnation of the burlesque grows, to some degree, out of a sense of political outrage.
Zebra pointed out that this form of burlesque, unlike those of past eras, is not exploitive, but is really about empowerment. Taylor Mac compared it to the Playhouse of the Ridiculous but sweet, “not ‘fuck you we’re gonna celebrate,’ just “we’re gonna celebrate!’” Tanya said that they were all familiar with the era of anger, but found themselves in an era where it was more fun to be sly and sneakily witty.
She also said that in a time when there are images of the body everywhere, it’s curious that the actual body is so much more shocking. While kids might see Victoria’s Secret ads on TV everyday, the actual female body in underwear seems to have a subversive power that can escape objectification by exposing its own clumsiness along with its beauty, its awkwardness and humor.
Tigger replied, “It’s about putting the human being back inside the genitals.” But Tanya clarified her position further, saying , “It’s more about the fun we have inhabiting our bodies with their sweat and smells and muscle.” Zebra added that for him it was about “epiphany” which, he explained, means it is about high art. “We’re bringing the collective consciousness back up,” he said.
In response to a question about the serious political material that entered their acts, Taylor Mac said that he believed it was braver and more personal to approach the political through the personal, because in this way both the self and the political situation our exposed. Zebra said that when performance becomes preachy it is no longer art but “really good graphic design.” However, he said that he has a strong social conscience and feels it is more important than ever to get like minds together in a room. He said that he considers himself an entertainer before an artist, but that he’s angry about the state of the world and believes that people need a visceral experience and are ready to “expand beyond Fox News.”
The moderator asked the Wau Wau sisters specifically about the feminist bent to their work. Adrian replied that while she applauds feminists who bring their politics explicitly into their work but that for her feminism simply pervaded what she did, and that while she wouldn’t ever call it feminist she also wouldn’t say it wasn’t feminist. The moderator commented that “it’s possible to be inherently political without being explicitly so.”
Tigger said “We’re putting the femme back in feminism,” pointing out that it’s a traditionally female art form, but that it had become mixed and quirky. Taylor Mac described a party he’d been to where he saw a crowd of gay men watching straight girls take off their clothes and cheering them on. He’d appreciated the moment, and felt it expressed an important focus of the movement, which was more on theatricality and expression than sexuality. The performers all agreed that the movement, as they had experienced it, was deeply inclusive and celebratory of difference.
The general philosophy that these performers communicated was one of joy and tenderness toward their art, their audiences, and their bodies. They are performing because it’s what they love to do and what they are good at, but in order to be honest to themselves and their audiences, their politics show up on stage. Julie insisted that they are deeply pro-American. After all, she said, “I put a flag in my ass and didn’t get arrested!”
Zebra, who was particularly articulate about his take on the art form, summed up the discussion with this memorable sound bite: “It’s not about showing your tits, it’s about unveiling your humanity.”
All of the performers were deeply articulate and insightful people. When I walked into the Q Center and saw them at the front of the room, I was struck by how ordinary they all looked in broad day light and dressed somewhat more conservatively. Rather than decreasing my awe, this fed it. What extraordinary talent these people have! It appeared to me that each of them had found a vocation in what they do, that their personalities, their passions, their imaginations, and their communities had all come into perfect balance to feed these art forms of theirs.
I left a little achy-envious, wishing my vocation had something to do with drag or trapezes. I would like to live as large and as honestly as these six people seem to do. In the mean time, however, their integrity and imagination and intelligence were almost as deeply inspiring to me as the fucking incredible things they can do with their bodies.
Posted by: Taya Noland