Choreographer Danielle Georgiou assembled an all-male cast of dancers to explore the experience of what it means to be a man, gay or straight, in the world today. What they discovered surprised even them
Danielle Georgiou grew up with a tomboy sensibility — wearing boys’ T-shirts and playing games with neighborhood boys. But she also took dance classes every day and played dress-up in her mom’s closet and experimented with her makeup.
“I still wear men’s clothing and love heavy eyeliner and high heels — I have lots and lots of shoes,” she laughs.
But the way she effortlessly crossed gender lines got her wondering, from an early age, why things had to be separate — “like, why we can’t all go to the same bathroom; why it’s OK for me to shop in the men’s department, but not OK for men to shop in the women’s department; and why being ‘strong’ is not [considered] ‘girly,’” she says.
Now an adult — and professional choreographer (she founded the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group in 2011) — she has found an outlet to explore those ideas artistically. Her last show, Nice, dealt with “the effect of culture on femininity,” she says, so it made sense to her that for her latest piece — which she and co-creator Justin Locklear describe as a hybrid of theater and dance — she would turn her focus on what it means to be a man. The result, The Show About Men, has its world premiere at the Festival of Independent Theatres, starting this weekend.
Georgiou and Locklear set out to create a non-traditional piece in collaboration with an all-male company. “We started the process … [by allowing] our men to speak their minds and share stories from their experiences,” says Locklear. “We took several of these and brought them directly to the show.”
For Gabe King, a veteran of DGDG, the process of sharing those stories to create a piece has been emotionally intense, if not outright cathartic.
“Some of us have never said aloud to anyone — or even ourselves prior to the show — [these personal experiences],” King says. “Such an introspective approach in the creative process forces an honesty out of you.”
“The rehearsal process has been emotionally and physically exhausting in all the best ways,” says Colby Calhoun, another performer in the show. “While it’s a lot more work than a typical [piece] would be, it is that much more rewarding.”
“It’s so interesting to hear these [stories] from the other performers — some of whom I’ve known for years, but not having a clue to these crucial moments of their lives that made them the people they are today,” King adds. “They’re beautiful, they’re tragic — like little glimpses into the makings of someone’s soul. I can also appreciate a nice, honest, hilariously crass musical number. We’ve got that, too!”
Georgiou shaped these stories in the rehearsal process to “create movement phrases that embody the narratives, or work to elaborate and illustrate the concepts and themes,” she says. “We were really interested in adding a physical vocabulary to the universal ideas and themes. It has been very collaborative, and we have been so excited to include the stories of our dancers to the show.”
The process has been an educational one for everyone.
“While working on Nice, we noticed several aspects of the treatment of feminine people that come from society also misunderstanding the masculine. We realized that both sides of the equation have a lot of work to do,” Locklear says. “This is why we wanted to start working through the lives of our dancers. Throughout our process, we have found that all of our dancers have experienced various forms of confusion about their masculinity. They have received influence and instruction to be the men that they may not be. Perhaps what was really important to learn was that men are constantly dealing with pressures [related to their sexual identity].”
That certainly has been the case with King.
“Hyper-masculinity is praised both cosmetically and culturally [in gay culture]. It’s almost won — a title to be [granted] and confirmed by others,” he observes. “Conversely, certain traits deemed more traditionally female are lauded when displayed unabashedly, almost in defiance to hetero-normative expectations. Personally, I’ve found that coming to grips with — and understanding — my sexual identity has helped me to understand and affirm my own identity as a man. It’s difficult to form an understanding of one without the other for gay men.”
“I think that a lot people look to me, or other gay men, not to prove that they are ‘gay enough’ — which really translates into people looking to me to be really feminine,” says Calhoun. “But then, people are surprised when I enjoy conventionally masculine things. Stuff like that all contributes to stereotypes so no matter how ‘classically gay’ I might be — because I probably am — I just try to focus on being me and I try not to worry so much about what people expect from me.”
For Georgiou, the surprise was that much of what she realized about herself, and about femininity and what it means to be one sex, was not all that different from what it means to be a man.
“I think really at the basis of my interest in this idea is the fact that I’m not a man,” she says. “This process has allowed me to explore the many ways in which men and women are similar. I was expecting to see our differences as glaring and dynamic, but the show has really solidified our sameness. Working on this show has given me a new insight into male-hood … it’s not that different from girl-hood, really.”
Calhoun agrees whole-heartedly. “I’m definitely more feminine than what most people think is the average man, and I’m a lot more fluid with gender roles and what I like to wear, but I don’t know if that’s inspired solely by my sexual orientation or if that’s all just because I’m me,” he says. “I think that is something important about manhood and gender that we’re trying to get across with The Show About Men: Whether we’re a man or a woman, gay or straight, or anything in between, we’re all just people.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 10, 2015.