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What Can Queer and Dance Do for Each Other?


The host of Explode! Queer Dance on Saturday night was the South Asian drag queen LaWhore Vagistan.

Paula Lobo for The New York Times

As audience members took their seats for the final performance of Explode! Queer Dance on Saturday night, the choreographer, performer and dance scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz roamed among us, collecting suggestions.

“What needs to happen for this to be a queer dance?” he asked my date and me, leaving us each with two index cards and a Sharpie. Later he would take our ideas into consideration — or discard them — as part of his improvisatory solo “i made a mess.”

That work was one of four on the bill at Jack, the theater in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, that hosted the performance portion of Explode!, a four-day festival organized by the dance historian and theorist Clare Croft. The event brought together artists and academics “thinking about what queer and dance can do for each other,” as our dazzling host, the South Asian drag queen LaWhore Vagistan, put it in her introductory remarks.

According to the program, Explode! set out to tackle inextricable challenges of strengthening ties among queer dance artists and dismantling racism, sexism, classism, transphobia and white supremacy. A tall order, but why aim for less? Through that framework, one reiterated by LaWhore (“Dr. Vagistan, if you’re nasty,” she said with a smile, a reference to her own life in academia), we watched works ranging from Jennifer Harge’s critique of police brutality to an Irish fiddle-and-dance duet by Cleek Schrey and Nic Gareiss.

Mr. DeFrantz’s provocation — What makes a dance queer? — came to mind as Mr. Schrey and Mr. Gareiss took the stage for “Lafferty’s,” establishing a subtle intimacy simply by standing face to face. It’s not unusual, among contemporary male Irish dancers, to see a muscular posturing in the torso and arms, a regrettable byproduct of the flashy style popularized by the “Lord of the Dance” creator Michael Flatley, who tried so hard to be sexy. How refreshing to see that softened in Mr. Gareiss’s dexterous melding of Irish and Appalachian dance, and to watch a conversation, not a competition, unfold. As Mr. Schrey built from skimming, ethereal notes on the fiddle to a fast Irish reel, Mr. Gareiss, too, gathered breathtaking speed. The two are virtuosos in their respective forms, but also in the shared art of listening.

Other close and complex partnerships emerged in Ms. Harge’s “cussin and prayin” and in “RMW(A) & RMW” by DD Dorvillier and Jennifer Monson. Ms. Harge and Brittany Williams opened the program by grabbing a bottle of whiskey from under one audience member’s seat. They drank from it after Ms. Harge, running in place, read from a list of unarmed black people killed by police officers since 1999: names, ages, locations, dates. In a final cleansing or clearing, Ms. Williams grabbed a big broom and assertively swept the floor where the two had danced to Lil Wayne. (“You see a broom coming, you move your feet,” she warned.) As she and Ms. Harge walked away from the now tranquil space, grief lingered.

Ms. Dorvillier and Ms. Monson offered something more comedic, revisiting a collaboration that began in 1994. Gussied up in blue eye shadow, pink lipstick and voluminous wigs — all of which ended up smeared or torn off — they took turns timing each other’s movement explorations, ultimately ensnaring themselves in one grappling duet. It was as much of a mess, in a good way, as Mr. DeFrantz’s lecture-performance, in which he shared memories from academic conferences, tap-danced in sneakers and gleaned what he could, in a deliberately flailing finale, from audience-generated notions of “queer dance.”

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