D.C. DanceWatcher

Measures of Masculinity

Posted in Contemporary ballet, Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized, World dance by lisatraiger on May 28, 2010

Multiple Personalities: an evening of dance by Christopher K. Morgan
Music Center at Strathmore
Bethesda, Md.
May 23, 2010

By Lisa Traiger
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger

Christopher Morgan in “The Measure of a Man,” courtesy CityDance Ensemble.

Dancer/choreographer Christopher Morgan is a shape shifter. “Multiple Personalities,” his recent concert of choreographic works crisscrosses genres as easily as a smooth, flat stone skipped across a glassy pond. A modern dancer, he effortlessly tackled a balletic pas de deux, a hip hop number and a traditional hula. Although that extreme variety sounds suspiciously like a Dolly Dinkle recital, Morgan displays choreographic intellect in each of the genres he assays, resulting in mostly full-bodied artistic works that interplay narrative, movement ideas and a not insignificant trace of humanity.Currently rehearsal director at CityDance Ensemble, one of the Washington, D.C. region’s fastest growing and most successful contemporary companies, Morgan’s evening of works fits neatly into the intimate CityDance Center studio/theater at the Music Center at Strathmore. Opening with a traditional hula song and chant, expanded with a personal story -– a nod to Morgan’s time spent working with Marylander Liz Lerman’s text-based choreographic endeavors -– the evening also featured a contemporary ballet mostly danced on pointe; a freewheeling modern number with allusions to clubbing and high fashion; and, the program’s strongest and most personal piece, “The Measure of a Man,” a testament of the artist coming to terms with his masculine identity.

In 1987, San Francisco-based choreographer Joe Goode managed to rattle staid sensibilities in the dance world and beyond with the premiere of his gay-identity piece, “29 Effeminate Gestures.” Goode intended to tear down stereotypes with his uber-masculine persona fraught with a series of feminine, read “gay,” gestures. In his butch demeanor he even used a chainsaw to chop up a chair on stage, then mumbled, over and over, “He’s a good guy. He’s a good guy,” as if saying it would make it so. Goode tried to convince himself that he could somehow possess the masculine mystique: that John Wayne tough and independent streak and the notion that real men, of course, shed no tears. The work “29 Effeminate Gestures” examined what happens when one suppresses one’s nature -– Goode’s feelings, and his femininity, couldn’t be contained. Five years after Goode’s work premiered, scholar/critic David Gere called his study one of “heroic effeminacy.” “29 Effeminate Gestures” became a defining work for a generation of gay men, dance artists or not, who struggled with their identity and coming out in a then more socially and politically hostile decade. Today, at least in many areas of our nation, gay is virtually the new black. If a movie or sitcom doesn’t contain some sort of swishy, gay character, a butch neighbor, or the friendly lesbian couple down the street, well, then how current could it possibly be?

ChristopherKMorgan2 It’s surprising and a compliment to Morgan’s mastery of choreographic structure that “The Measure of a Man,” initially created in 2004, remains vibrant and current. Seen as a companion to Goode’s artistic coming to terms and coming out, Morgan, too, narrates the episodes of a multidimensional life. What’s best though is the chameleon-like facility he has in physicalizing a specific walk, stance, or even just a head nod or shrug. If he weren’t a dancer, Morgan would make a fine living as a character actor of imposing perspicacity. In trying on various identities, which he does readily with help from a wardrobe hung on a clothes line across the back of the stage, he becomes a brusque businessman displaying the broad, confident walk with its alpha male thrust of the chest. Pulling off his starched white shirt and slacks, he morphs into a swishy voguer wearing platform go-go boots, then a prancing danseur noble with a dress-model partner and an accompanying Tchaikovsky waltz. A change of shoulders, and pants, and he’s a heavy-lidded swaggering homey, a knit cap pulled low on his forehead, baggy pants lower on his hips, and some old-school breakdancing and crotch-grabbing moves complete the picture. Each character, distinct and sharply drawn, displays Morgan’s gift for physical mimicry and narrative development. The anticipated ending, as Morgan strips away each of his identities, and his wardrobe, exposes the rawest of emotions, captured in Morgan’s self-flagellating as he whispers “Real men don’t cry.”


Of the evening’s newest works, “Compass Point(e)s,” with a moody, contemporary electronic cello score by Ignacio Alcover, demonstrated Morgan’s ability to structure abstract movement in inventive ways. Based on a Lakotan Native American tales and traditions, the work blends ideas of the physical compass points -– north, south, east and west -– with their spiritual manifestations. Not unlike the ancient classical ideas Balanchine drew on for his 1946 work “The Four Temperaments,” Morgan, too, binds the physical and spiritual. Three of the four dancers, including compact dynamo Jason Ignacio, perform in pointe shoes, and the juxtapositions of solos, duets and trios among the four dancers feeds on the refinement of neoclassical ballet. Elizabeth Gahl demonstrated a smooth-handed evenness, while Giselle Alvarez posed a darker presence with her angularity and flexed limbs. Lanky William Smith, the only dancer in slippers, swept in with his long arms and legs, a calming, knowing presence amid some stormy moments, while Ignacio contributed a joyful streak to this mostly sober, though not severe, work.

Borrowing from the club and fashion worlds, “Snapshots,” another premiere, was most interesting for the exaggerated costumes dancer/designer Kyle Lang contributed: shifts with overly popped collars and stiff shoulders, pinafore-like mini dresses, swaths of purple scarves and bright red lipstick. The five vignettes featuring a rotating cast spotlighted primping dancers, in little amuse-bouches -– bite-sized appetizers — that lead ultimately to a one-off punch line, punning on the title. Morgan’s opening, “Pohaku,” with its ancient-sounding chant and drumming, paid tribute to the dancemaker’s Hawaiian roots. A work in progress, it needs an editor’s sharp eye to resolve slackness and gain a clearer sense of the import of performance. Morgan is parsing new ground here, delving into his family’s hula roots, a rich and multifaceted tradition with some compelling stage exponents, among them his cousin, late master hula teacher John Kaimikaua. If Morgan applies the same standards of artmaking here, he’ll find a resonant result.

Published May 28, 2010
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger