This review was originally published in Seattle Dances.
It is difficult to describe the work of Gender Tender to the uninitiated. Parsing the movement oriented part of Gender Tender’s milieu is easy enough, but to describe their method around a theme is a little more difficult. To describe the movement it would help to know that the company is made up of 15-20 ensemble members from across the entire gender, racial, age, physical, sexual orientation and dance proficiency spectrum. So, even though choreography is a major component of a given production, due to the pedestrian nature of the ensemble, everything becomes lived in, imperfect, making it more human and down to earth. To complement this prosaic element, the company also employs a fairly liminal approach to a subject; take a notion, explore it, live within it for a time and then move on to the next impulse. These explorations come in the form of durational chapters (i.e. taking place over extended periods of time), the creation of painterly images onstage, seemingly extemporaneous phrasings and monologues all centered around a unifying purpose. This varied approach can come across as random formlessness, but meaning can be gained with an open embrace of the abstract and ephemeral.
With Melted Riot, Fox Whitney, the driving force behind Gender Tender, uses as a launching point the inciting incident behind the LGBTQ+ Pride movement: the punch thrown by drag artist Stormé DeLarverie against one of the policemen accosting the Stonewall Inn clientele which sparked a fateful, identity-forming riot that took place over a late June weekend 50 years ago. However, Whitney does not directly depict this pivotal moment and its repercussions, neither in Melted Riot itself, nor in any of the installations, durational and public performances that took place all over Capitol Hill leading up to each showing of Melted Riot throughout Pride weekend.
Riot instead presented a meditation on the social and cultural trappings surrounding the Stonewall Riots. As the audience entered the performance space, the ensemble lay still, nude underneath individual US flags; the tableau evoked an image of dead soldiers, the number of which were growing exponentially during the time of the riots. From there, the evening shifted from ritualized painterly images, to choreographed vignettes done to jukebox music of the Stonewall Inn, extensively backmasked as though to create a sense of foreboding. Interspersed throughout were spoken repetitive bits of monologues and dialogue that were delivered right into the performer’s hand, if not mumbled or whispered, so that one couldn’t make out what was being said. It would’ve been frustratingly oblique if it weren’t so plainly intentional.
Then, along the time that Whitney and Will Courtney took turns offering to buy each other drinks, set to a jittery rendition of Nico and The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Riot started to take shape. The moment, with the palpable intimacy between Whitney and Courtney, spoke to the sense of belonging places like the Stonewall Inn (or Seattle’s belated Double Header, or Wallingford’s Changes) would offer to their regulars: a refuge away from the judgmental mores of the world they lived in. Once established, this sense of Time and Place suffused the proceedings, lending individual moments a diffuse gravity in abstraction.
For example, various backstage areas, intentionally made visible through opened doors, were bathed in red light which seemed an odd choice until a character played by Hatlo describes what it is like walking into the Stonewall Inn and spends a good amount of time talking about how the red neon sign gave everything a seamy and alluring patina. Later, the ensemble is partnered up and repeated the dialogue and movement that Whitney and Courtney performed earlier, turning the intimacy they shared into a pantomime of mundane complacency. This is soon broken up when a flashing red emergency light is placed on stage and the placid setting is disturbed. Soon all the lights in the room — save the emergency light — are turned off and the ensemble performs a routine with flashlights set to Dusty Springfield’s slightly disturbing “The Windmills of My Mind.” The choreography felt vaguely threatening while the flashlights added to the shadowy atmosphere and lent the scene an ethereal and soothing air as Springfield’s detached singing made everything surreal. Was this a representation of the riot? It isn’t clear, but the mild unease mixed with the hypnotic effect of the movement would seem to suggest it might be.
Connections are made this way throughout Melted Riot, as time-capsuled elements of the era are explored for connection, meaning, or amusement. At one point in the immediate aftermath of the riots, a nude Rubenesque embodiment of The Spirit of 1969, played by Vanessa DeWolf, enters ranting and raving, at once oblivious to the scene surrounding it while at the same time demanding the attention of people who are otherwise literally occupied with their own struggle. A more concise illustration of how self absorbed the Flower Power set could be would be hard to find. A similar subtlety is found during a late portion of the evening that finds Whitney and Courtney re-enacting Ratso Rizzo’s death scene from Midnight Cowboy. Much has been made of the film’s depiction of a platonic gay relationship, particularly Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of the hustler with a chronic illness; Whitney and Courtney’s irreverent takes on the scene were at once humorous and cognizant of both the era’s attempt to grapple with a new openness and how much further the culture needed to go.
As Melted Riot wound down and the ensemble repeated the ritualized images from the beginning of the performance, the ensemble’s very diversity took on a resonance of its own. By creating a work that focused on the birth of the Pride movement and then having the work performed on that event’s 50th Anniversary, the fact that Whitney has peopled their recreation with a pan-sexual, pan-gendered, queer, body positive, non-ageist, polymorphous cast of dancers becomes a statement on its own: Just as the Stonewall Riots were a necessary cultural awakening for the dominant repressive culture of the times, so is our current era both in need and in the midst of a contemporaneous revolution.
The weight of this revelation elevates Melted Riot beyond being a straightforward exploration of a noteworthy event with historical relevance into an irreverent and necessary study of the Freak Flag unfurling in the modern era of the United States of America and why it’s important to ensure it continues doing so for generations and populations to come.