because the personal is cultural
In September 2015, Montreal choreographer Gérard Reyes presented his solo The Principle of Pleasure at Théâtre La Chapelle. What follows are excerpts from a conversation Reyes and I had after the end of the show’s run.
SYLVAIN VERSTRICHT The section of The Principle of Pleasure where you danced for the person sitting on the chair was especially potent for me because in that moment we (the audience) became voyeurs, which oddly I didn’t feel we were before that point. A question that kept popping up in my mind during the show, which might sound absurd though I don’t think it actually is, was “Are we just spectators?” What is the role of the audience in The Principle of Pleasure?
GÉRARD REYES From my experience as a seasoned concert dancer, I was sick of the conventional separation between audience and performer in a theatre, whereby the audience places primacy on the artist, yet the artist refuses to truly acknowledge the audience until the end of the show. There is a latent potential for exchange there! While I was conceiving The Principle of Pleasure, I was attending various performative events and spaces that were new to me – trans bars, female strip clubs, BDSM/fetish events, queer parties, vogue balls – each with its own code of conduct. These codes opened me up to consider a more equitable and fulfilling relationship between the ‘audience’ and ‘performer’ that is based on shared responsibility and communication. I propose a situation, encourage the audience to choose a role/perspective which speaks to them within it and hope that it will mutate over the course of the show: spectator, client, voyeur, performer, lover, dom, sub, friend, person, etc. There is another dimension to the audience. It is both inside (live participants) and outside the theatre (i.e. on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and wherever else people decide to post photos and videos they take during the show).
VERSTRICHT Speaking of Instagram, the image is a huge part of the show; there are two mirrors onstage, two photographers, one videographer, and – as you mentioned – audience members are also invited to take pictures with their cell phones. Why did you decide to set the performance in that environment?
REYES Yes, image is a part of the show, but it is only the most superficial layer of the work. I use the elements you mentioned as well as others (mirrors, chairs, cameras, lighting, humans) to create images, define space and create proximity in order to allow for more intimate relationships to emerge between the audience and myself. That is where my greater interest lies. The reason I allow photos during the show is four-fold: 1) to give the audience the freedom to make choices; 2) to invite the audience to enter into a more active relationship with me and their surroundings; 3) to subvert conventions; and 4) to play with the idea of celebrity. I want to make the theatre a more inviting place to be, where people can relax and be themselves. One of my strategies is to allow the audience to do what they do all the time when they’re not in the theatre – talk, move around, stand, sit, use their phones. I want to address the audience as individuals and encourage them to express themselves. Hopefully some will come to the realization that behaviour is a choice. We have more control than we think over ourselves and any given space. Our individual choices help inform the choices of those around us.
VERSTRICHT A big part of the way you also play with celebrity is by using Janet Jackson songs throughout the show, not to mention that she also provides you with the title for the piece. There have been quite a few works recently where queer and/or fem men have emulated pop stars (Beyonce is a particularly popular one these days). I’ve been wondering if it’s because, as a fem man in our culture, the highest level of celebrity one can seemingly aspire to is to be on RuPaul's Drag Race. It sort of makes me think about karaoke and how it’s an opportunity for people, if only for a moment, to sing as if they were their favourite pop star. It also plays into ball culture and how people who had really hard lives could act like divas for a day. This is a difficult question because it extends beyond you, but I was wondering if you could talk about what your personal reasons were for playing with the idea of celebrity...
REYES We feel we “know” celebrities by their regular appearances on magazine covers and the banal details they share about their lives. But the physical and emotional distance they maintain from their fans actually gives them a power that makes them appear elusive, unique and desirable. I play with the cliché of this kind of celebrity at the beginning of my piece by presenting an extroverted character who is not embarrassed about displaying his body or showing self-appreciation or being filmed or photographed. But I want the external image of celebrity that opens my piece to fade to the background of the more multidimensional personas who the audience encounters once we are all on stage together. These personas I created embody the deeper layers of my sexuality, imagination, pleasure and desire that I have discovered and cultivated over the last few years. They are glamorous and physically attractive, nevertheless they are not shallow. Rather they are personable, generous and open to sharing their intimacy with whoever is willing to come along.
VERSTRICHT Do you know Robert St-Amour? He's basically the best dance spectator. He goes to see a lot of shows and almost always writes a little something about them on Facebook after. After seeing your piece, he wrote “Les premiers moments sont inconfortables (pour moi), mais peu à peu, ‘j’apprivoise la bête’ ou je dirais plutôt que ‘la bête m’a appprivoisé’. La suite devient agréable et je suis presque déçu de reprendre ma place pour la fin de la présentation.” When I read that, I realized how important queer performance still is. Maybe sometimes, as queer people, we take it for granted.
REYES I want to respond to St-Amour’s comment about my solo – that he was uncomfortable at first but then “the beast” (i.e. I) tamed him. It is indeed my intention to softly confront the audience but with the hope that they will overcome their fear. If they feel uncomfortable with my revealing costume or being on stage with me or in a moment when my eyes meet theirs, then the non-judgemental environment that I create is propitious for them to feel their discomfort and let go of it (if they so choose).
has an MA in Film Studies and works in contemporary dance. His fiction has appeared in Headlight Anthology, Cactus Heart, and Birkensnake.
s.verstricht [at] gmail [dot] com