When a dance production comes along that involves beauty and imagination to the nth degree, and I’m lucky enough to be there to witness it, I feel incalculably grateful. In the midst of fractured times, for a choreographer/dancer to pull together a full-length evening of flawless dance and story telling is immeasurably wonderful and healing. The boundlessly gifted Sean Dorsey and his Fresh Meat crew performed perfectly this past Friday, November 18, at that jewel of a dance space, ODC Theater, and when it was over, a packed house gave the dancers, musicians and tech crew a much deserved, prolonged standing ovation. No one wanted to leave. Everyone was smitten.
“The Outsider Chronicles”, billed as “a dance theater journey into the world of the gender outsider,” stripped off layers of confusion surrounding the transgender experience, baring a simple, spare, sublime representation of otherness, while retaining that certain mysteriousness that makes transgendered people so alluring. Five dances encompassed a lifetime of experience, mostly told in duets with super handsome Sean and exquisitely beautiful Mair Culbreth, or by Sean solo. In the opening piece “Second Kiss,” Sean and Mair represented two school girls, nine year olds, exploring romance and reeling from confusion. Mair was the cute, pushy girly girl who wanted her first taste of boy lips. She looked over her options, and mistaking Sean for a boy, chose him. Sean, realizing he’d be taking part in a deception, dragged Mair away from his playmates, who knew his true gender, to indulge in the desire he and Mair both shared, albeit with different levels of awareness. They kissed, just once, and rolled around, and found their limbs entwined, then they were lying side by side, breathless. Her passion aroused, Mair then wanted to have a look “down there,” and Sean knew the gig was up. “Oh gross!” reeled Mair, confronted with the evidence. She fled, but soon edged back, taking Sean’s hand. There would be no second kiss. The first kiss, however, was unforgettable.
By the second dance, Sean was all man, androgynous to be sure, but male without a doubt. There was no question he had transitioned. “Red Tie, Red Lipstick” opened with him dressing at a sink, fixing his pressed, starched white shirt and dark suit jacket, arranging his red tie, as Mair, the seductive woman in a red dress, circled slowly around him, dancing to sophisticated electronic lounge music, closing in on her man, the two of them preparing to embark on a night on the town. In a voice-over by hip hop poet/writer Marcus Van, we heard of the couple’s brutal queer-bashing by thugs posing as cops. It was a gritty, gut-wrenching urban tale. The faux-cops spat out the word lesbian as a slur, and dragged the one with the red dress and red lipstick into the shadows. Sean and Mair, danced exquisitely, reflecting all the punches and insults, even as the red dress became irreparably soiled. The dance continued after the physical violence was over, but clearly the saga of the red dress would always be with them.
The other dances were equally affecting, “Six Hours” involved a road trip by car to meet Sean’s dad, who didn’t know Sean now identifies as a man. Mair and Sean in the car bickered endlessly, employing passive aggression and other tricks to work out some of their relationship kinks. In “Creative,” Sean solo danced a hilarious piece about a teenager in school sent to a Guidance Counselor to discuss gender inappropriateness. That piece was about courage, how a teenager wants it and needs it, and how it can fail at crucial times.
Brilliance characterized every facet of Erling Wold’s Queer on opening-night, April 11, 2001, at ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. From conception through execution, the chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel more than did justice to Burroughs’ spirit – it rekindled that spirit vividly for the audience, a sophisticated crowd that paid rapt attention to every subtle nuance of inflection and expression from orchestra and actors alike.
Truly the night belonged to composer Wold, whose latest, possibly greatest work follows previous chamber operas A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1993-94) and Sub Pontio Pilato (1995-98) and a host of recordings, chamber pieces, and New Music-style electronic experiments. The concept of turning a classic of queer literature into a post-postmodern chamber piece, complete with on-stage orchestra and what amounts to a singing William Burroughs, dares to be taken seriously. In lesser hands, it could have turned Burroughs’ dry humor and desperate longings into farce. But the combined prodigious talents of Wold, stage director Jim Cave, dramaturgist John Morace, conductor Deirdre McClure, choreographer Cid Pearlman, lighting designer Clyde Sheets, and costume designer Hank Ford, together with a stellar cast, orchestra, and crew, skillfully brought life to Wold’s idea, turning Queer into an exceptionally well-rehearsed, well-executed, inspiring work of high art.
Wold’s composition for trumpet, guitar, piano, synthesizer, violin and contrabass, flawlessly executed by an orchestra including Wold on guitar, creates an atmospheric, classically based soundscape reminiscent of works by Philip Glass, David Del Tredici, and Ned Rorem; aptly, the Village Voice once described Wold as “the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock.” Here, though, minimalism and melody go hand in hand, with lovely passages, including suggestions of Mexican mariachi music, offset by sections more mood-setting than melodic. The various passages cohere into a gorgeous tapestry, as intricate and interesting as any woven textile.
Part of Queer‘s appeal is its marriage of modern music with a text dear to the hearts of queer literati. It would have been easy to parody Burroughs using his own words. Fortunately, the caustically funny Burroughs temperament came across dazzlingly in the characterization of William Lee – Burroughs’ alter ego – by Trauma Flintstone, who turned in a bravura performance. Flintstone was a joy to experience as Lee, singing passages in recitative and flowing across the stage in hot pursuit of his love object. At times he soared in touching, elegant arias – usually just after he’d downed a drink or two, or tried to get his hand down Allerton’s pants and been yet-again rejected.
Not only did Flintstone exhibit rich vocal qualities and a prodigious feat of memory – he sang practically the entire libretto, whole passages expertly pieced together from the text of the novel – he convincingly personified the novel’s chief protagonist. He did this not by imitating Burroughs’ style, but by channeling the writer’s corrosive spirit with seeming effortlessness. Flintstone is a natural for the part, with lanky body, balding head, growly voice, and an apparently innate ability to tell fanciful yarns illustrated with expansive hand gestures and quirky facial tics.
Flintstone brought to the role natural charm, an easiness in body language, a measured pace, and inner motivation outwardly manifested by apt facial expressions, vocal tones, and gestures. His comfortable stage presence allowed him real interactions with his fellow actor/singers. Hints of music-theater training emerged in his vocal style, suggesting a potential for affectation and exaggeration, yet Flintstone nailed the operatic form, bringing heft to his performance and grounding it in the meaning of the text, rather than letting fly simply for the sake of melody.
Shane Kramer ably carried off the challenge of serving as Lee’s mostly unresponsive love object, Eugene Allerton, a young man of sullen good looks and aloof (not to mention alcoholic and heroin addicted) behavior. At first Kramer seemed an odd choice for the part, being perhaps older and more rugged in appearance than the novel suggests Allerton to be. Rather than a corrupt pretty kid, Kramer embodied the character of a jaded young tough, sullen in the way Brad Davis was as the sought-after sailor/sex object in Querelle. Yet Kramer pulled it off well, keeping himself aloof, disinterested, but never wooden. His sexuality always was palpable, and you could understand why Lee obsessed over him.
Lending lusty weight and powerful vocals to various character parts was Ken Berry, his acting and singing abilities indispensable to the overall tone and success of the piece. This is Berry’s second production with Wold, after playing the father in Wold’s A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil.
Dancers doubling as characters – the lovely Stacey Em Jackson, Zenón Barrón, and Norberto Martinez – popped in and out of the scenes, gracefully, artfully merging dance and drama. At one moment they served as foils and counterparts to Lee’s lusty imagination; the next they were creating evocative tableaux on the wide, deep, beautifully lit stage. The set, with benches, tables, and bar at the front of the stage and an alluring bed toward the rear, allowed much space for the dancers, and choreographer Cid Pearlman made great use of the openings. Barrón and Martinez paired off frequently in sensuous dance-play that formed a continual backdrop to the goings on with Lee and Allerton. Especially in the second half of the show, together with Jackson, they infused the production with a sexy perfume of teasing, come-hither looks, and slow-motion seductions.
Queer, the chamber opera, conveys the story of a queer American bum south of the border in the 1940s as artfully as Queer, the novel. One might have expected a musical version of the book to incorporate grunge rock, or jazz, or blues, or tango – but a chamber opera? It works, and that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to check out this instant classic.
Erling Wold’s Queer played through April 22 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. Phone (415) 863-9834.
It was a total eclipse of the heart, just as choreographer/circus master Keith Hennessy sang during a raucous number on opening night in San Francisco of Circo Zero’s “Sol Niger”.
A seemingly moonlit stage at the venerable alternative art space Theatre Artaud served well to showcase a troupe of five performers and the lighting designs of Max, a true master of projections, illuminating a combination of dazzling aerial acrobatics and sophisticated modern dance played out to a wild, original, funky piano/percussion/electronic loop symphony created by a lone, lean, muscular, long-haired musician with a dynamic flair.
Circus master Keith Hennessy has created a masterpiece with “Sol Negro,” his latest in a long line of increasingly sophisticated circus productions. This time he pulled off a total winner, a blend of physical daring on the ropes, modern dance, balancing on a ball, mime, visual projections, and manic piano playing.
Sean Feit, the dazzing pianist, took the keyboard to a whole new level of brilliant if seemingly demented playing, the instruments hammers exposed for extra effect. His playing was muscular, and with his shirt off, it was his rippling back that as much as anything grabbed our attention as he pounded the keys, seemingly intent on destroying the instrument. I half expcted it to fall apart under the onslaught, but all that intense energy, and Feit’s more subtle sound effects tricks, transferred to the other artists, who responded with astonishing artistry.
Aerialists Emily Leap and Brett Womack, dangling from ropes, captured our hearts and made us catch our breaths with their high-level risk taking. Leap, in her most breathtaking segment, dropped precipitously and flailed around on the ropes like a demented rag doll. We watched her fling herself about above the floor as Hennessy belayed her, and it seemed impossible she didn’t fall but in fact she was precise in every move, a masterful aerialist.
Brett Womack captured our hearts with his breathtaking beauty and imposibly perfect, seemingly effortless athleticism and grace. Of all the aerial artists I’ve seen, from Ringling Brothers to Cirque du Soleil, he is absolutely the finest, most flawless. He perched on the ropes like a cheetah stretching out on a branch, pouncing abruptly to startle us. He climbed up the ropes with the effortlessness of a monkey, then would fly down them and swing around with the surety and strength of a mountaineer.
Meanwhile Seth Eisen played the clown, a mime in bizarre drag, always lurking about in the background, ironing dolls, making faces, his white-face a Marcel Marceau mask, his arms akimbo, his expressions a commentary on the politics of the piece. And politics is precisely what pulled the whole production together and made it cohere. As always Hennessy had a point to make, and he made it well with monologues and singing, referring to the insanity of our war-for-profit, oil-drenched world, the insanity of it all. The beauty of the aerialists, the complexity and intrigue of the music soundscape, the dour antics of the disturbed clown, and the circus master control and command of Hennessy all combined to make a statement of what it means to be living in a world gone awry. Amidst the insanity, there is humanity, a realm of wonder worth inhabiting.
Circo Zero’s “Sol Nigher” plays through September 29 at Project Artaud Theatre, 450 Florida St. @ 17th St. in San Francisco. Tickets are $25 (and well worth it!). Shows are at 8pm. Tix: www.brownpapertickets.com, or 800-838-3006. Info: 415-255-2500.
This article appeared on Tribe.com, September 23, 2007.
In 1998 Aaron Schirmer attributed his having lived and thrived for 13 years with HIV — without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications — in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.
IT’S AROUND 5:30 A.M. SUNDAY, July 26, near sunrise in San Francisco’s South of Market district, and Freaky Chakra is going wild. His stand-up mop of black curls thrashes to the thundrous beat he’s creating. His fingers move deftly across synthesizer panels and mixing boards. He pops a sampler button and tweaks a knob and suddenly the bass plummets an octive, high notes go shrieking everywhere, and the floor seems to drop out of the room. Everyone dancing feels under the influence, their minds zooming off into space.
Chakra’s pure dope. Everybody at Vibrator gets high off him, especially the guy dancing directly in front of the right speaker, facing the sound. He’s Aaron Schirmer, 28, promoter and mastermind of Vibrator, who persuaded techno-master Chakra to do his first-ever live sunrise set, tailored for Vibrator, the already legendary rave born a mere five years ago in San Diego.
Even more dope is Mark E. Quark, Schirmer’s friend and the DJ whose early morning vinyl spinning set Vibrator ablaze. Everybody felt the energy, deep down and all around. Quark’s mixes went over the top, magnetically drawing people to the speakers and turntable setup. Schirmer’s core group of friends moved close en masse, swept into the groove. Quark was setting loose the incendiary progressive house sounds that most signify what Schirmer wants Vibrator to be all about: a spiritual healing place, where the mind and body can repair themselves.
Some people find spirituality in nature, others in monasteries and ashrams. Schirmer finds his path to expanded consciousness – even the key to sustaining his life – right in front of the speaker, his whole being saturated with noise, as he dances ecstatically among the members of his tribe, flailing his arms and swaying trance-like to rapid-fire electronic rhythms and sound samples.“Vibrator is where I can free my mind and let go of my life’s problems and just be in that realm of beauty, just be out there, dancing and raving, separated from AIDS, from all the problems that come with living on this planet, everything. I just dance and let my body move and the music take me.”
If Vibrator is Schirmer’s church, raves are his religion. Indeed, raves are where a host of Bay Area youth – gays and straights, women and men together – go these days to transcend themselves and, very likely, partake of the sacraments: acid, ecstasy, and other mood-altering, mind-opening substances (crystal meth is virtually absent at the smaller, better raves. Ditto alcohol).
On this weekend alone, Vibrator is just one (and, with only a few hundred select participants, by far the smallest) of at least three raves taking place in the city, all of which are attended mainly by hard-core ravers who learn of the events through word-of-mouth.
But Vibrator, as all its attendees know or soon discover, is a rave with a difference. Few coming to it fresh would likely be able to pinpoint its source of singularity, but those fully in tune with its vibe understand its creative twist: not only is its promoter, Schirmer, an authentic raver, fully of the fold since his teenage years; not only is he cute and queer; not only is he sweet natured, loving, and open with all kinds of people; he’s also a long-term survivor hell bent on staying alive.
Schirmer attributes his having lived and thrived for13 years with HIV, without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications (though he was diagnosed as having AIDS more than a year ago when his t-cell count briefly dropped below 200) in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.
“I don’t know how to explain it, really, in words,” he says. “It’s just this feeling I get when I go dancing sometimes, especially at outdoor parties where there’s a sunrise, and there’s this sense of tribalness. That’s when I start to think I have a key. Like, hey, I know exactly what I’m doing now, and I’m able to access this kind of energy that heals me. It makes me feel, like, shhhh, craazy girl! There’s nothing like it.”
Schirmer’s ex-boyfriend and current roommate Josh, 25 (they and Vibrator DJ Kevin West recently turned a former punk-rock venue on Valencia Street, the Def Club, into a live-rave space), shares the attitude: “I can have all this stuff in my head, day to day crap that stresses me out, and then go to a party like Vibrator and it won’t matter any more. It’ll be wiped away. I consider it a spiritual healing. It’s my form of meditation.”
Another close friend, Anna, who has traveled from San Diego to attend her fourth Vibrator party (though she insists she’s not part of the rave scene), says she’s not sure how motivated Schirmer is by having had a death threat hanging over him all his adult life, but “I’ve often heard Aaron say things like, ‘I need to go out and dance. I need to go hear some music.’ I think there’s a restlessness that comes from the distraction of HIV, and the dancing and the music are partly an escape. But it’s bigger than that, and it’s bigger than HIV. Like any non-HIV person at a rave, he’s having a really good time. But he feels the music more than most people. It’s very healing to him.”
While he fully accepts the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS, Schirmer remains deeply ambivalent about the pharmaceuticals now being widely prescribed to keep the virus in check. On the one hand, he recognizes their potential to keep AIDS patients alive, at least for a while, and he understands they have dramatically reduced AIDS-related deaths. Still, in large part because he’s done so well without them, he can’t help wondering if others with asymptomatic HIV wouldn’t do better pursuing alternative therapies.
“My doctor feels that whatever I’m doing is working,” says Schirmer, “so to stick with it. And that means making decisions like not taking the drugs right now. He said that if you get a gut feeling that you should be on these medications, then go with it. But if you’re getting a gut feeling that now is not the right time, go with it. So that’s where I’m at as far as deciding when to take medications.”
Schirmer’s twin brother, Mike, who’s also gay, HIV-positive (for 12 years), and a raver (or, rather, “former club kid,” as he puts it), went ahead with the coctail therapy after he came down with crypto and was told he had only a 20-percent chance of recovery. The drugs worked, and he’s in decent health, dancing with abandon at Vibrator, his hair the brightest Day-Glo orange in the room.
Unfortunately, Mike Schirmer couldn’t adhere to the drug regimen, so recently gave up trying – a decision most medical experts warn is fraught with risk.
“Going on medications is a huge decision,” says Tim Teeter, RN, a treatment support services specialist at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “All of the medications have side effects. You have to believe that what you’re doing is something you can stick with. At this point, that means for the rest of your life.”
“A wrong take on the situation,” cautions Project Inform’s Brenda Lien, “is, look, this guy [Aaron Schirmer] is living a long time without drugs, so drugs must be bad for you.
A possible explanation for Schirmer’s longevity, Lien offers, quite apart from his raving, is that “some people, for whatever reason, have immune systems better able to function [with HIV].” Moreover, the younger a person is when they’re infected, the better situated they are to fend off the virus. Schirmer was only 16 when he got the virus from his first sex partner.
Statistically speaking, Lien adds, Schirmer is only slightly beyond the normal survival curve: “Before combination antiviral therapies, the average time from initial HIV infection to death ranged from 10-12 years. At 13 years, Aaron’s clearly falling outside the norm, but only slightly.”
Still, Lien acknowledges, “Aaron’s system has clearly been able to control the disease. He’s probably a living example that one of the most potent antivirals is the immune system itself.”
Keeping one’s immune system intact, in Schirmer’s view, is best achieved through a positive state of mind, which is why music and dancing help. He refuses to be a victim, instead concentrating on healing energies within himself (which has not prevented him from smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and indulging in recreational drugs, though he wants to cut back on those habits).
Later this month, Schirmer will travel with his lover Christian, a former punk-rock devoteé who’s not into raves but is way into body piercing and tattoos, to Borneo, a journey he hopes will introduce him to tribal people who, for the most part, never lost their connection with native spirituality (and who have their own style of raving).
“If you’re able to find an outlet,” says Schirmer in his gentle, boyish voice, gazing pensively into the near distance, “to seriously get down to the nitty gritty in your spiritual world and understand why you’re here, what matters, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel more connected to your spirit than anything, you have a much better chance of survival, or at least accepting that you may die.”
A big part of what keeps Schirmer going, according to his friend Sarah (who is attending her first Vibrator), are the people he chooses to have around him: “He’s very emotional, and very open, and he needs people a lot, but it’s selective. His friends are his family. They’re a support group for him that he doesn’t really have from his natural family.”
What draws people to him, Sarah adds, and what makes them want to be with him at his parties, is that “he’s a big dreamer, which I love. There’s a sense of escapism with him. It’s an attractive thing to be around. This person has a depth of feeling and wants to share that.”
This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 6, 1998