Life in Performance
Dressing up, ballet, music videos and mutant dance
Mina Herscovici, my grandmother, is an aesthete. When I was young, she would often take care of me, and our after-school sessions featured a tight schedule of learning how to cook, mending holes in our clothes, listening to Julio Iglesias, hearing stories of her far-flung travels and watching her flick through the pages of Vogue. A Polish Jew who emigrated to New Zealand just before the war, she would pepper her conversation with heavily accented phrases such as, ‘On the continent, we did it like this …’ Before I was born, she ran a business with my great uncle selling fur coats in her adopted home and, by the time I came along, her wardrobe was littered with mink trophies. Amongst my first forays into choreography were the amateur routines that my sister, Talia, and I would perform to animate the various looks we found in her boudoir closet.
As a pre-teen in the early 1990s, my cultural education was sourced from an intravenous line of music videos flowing from Rage and mtv. The sheer abundance and variety of these three-to-four-minute audio-visual fantasies kept me enthralled for hours. I can still recall the hazy, yellowish glow of the video for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991), the giddy rewind of The Pharcyde’s Drop (1995) and the costumes from George Michael’s Too Funky (1992), including a corset modelled on motorcycle parts. For better or worse, images and moves from this time have lodged themselves in my visual vernacular; while working on a new piece with dancer Justin Kennedy, we found ourselves eagerly trying to channel the percussive limb-snapping of Janet Jackson, circa her 1989 video Rhythm Nation.
For a time, ballet was a big part of my life; I committed to it at about 13 years old and we separated when I turned 21. During performances, we young corps-de- ballet ducklings got to watch the starry luminaries from makeshift front row seats in the wings. Sylvie Guillem was still performing with The Royal Ballet in London during the year I worked there, and she was everything. She would slice and dice that saccharine ballet repertoire like a surgeon, with acrobatic limbs and knowing composure.
For a queer in his early 20s, encountering the work of Michael Clark is something of a rite of passage. Grounded firmly in the rigorous techniques of both classical ballet and Merce Cunningham, Clark’s choreography defies presumed strictures with delightfully awkward phrasing, a slew of costume changes and influences drawn from the queer club culture he was part of for so long. Clark exemplifies the productive tension of honouring tradition while also subverting it. Much has been written about Clark’s ‘singular vision’ but, when performing in his work, I’ve witnessed first-hand his way of cultivating collaborations and translating his sources to take his life outside the theatre and put it inside. No aspect of the staging (the steps, sound, scenography or publicity) is dispensable for Clark; it’s always necessary for him to make these elements act together. Dancing in his performances felt like a formal translation of the wider social and aesthetic world he inhabits.
It was through performing in one of Shahryar Nashat’s videos that we met and became partners. He had never worked with a dancer before and what struck me most about him was that, although he was curious about dance, he had not an ounce of the usual romantic feeling towards it. It’s very rare that people approach dance without any inkling of romanticization. Shahryar’s ability to be sensitive to the discipline, without indulging in romantic thinking, has been a significant influence on my work. I’ve learnt a lot from him about proportion, quality of sound and the rhythm of editing.
First published in Issue 174