On Presence and Drag Acts

This post was first published in BELLYFLOP Mag website on 5 Aug 2014.

Once upon a time there was a little boy who lived in a body that grew old faster than he could keep pace with.

This little boy was innocent and naïve and it took him a very long time to learn, especially when having to figure out the truths about things. Because of that, this little boy was prone to believe everything he was told. In this way it was easier, he thought, to understand the truths of things as others had figured them out before him.

It happened that this boy had decided to become a dancer and after a few years kicking legs up and trying to resolve the mysteries of how to pirouette on one leg without tripping over he entered a professional training in contemporary dance.

Suddenly he was in a room in which differently experienced dancers came and taught him some movements. With that he was OK.

However, these dancers also talked strange things. They said things about ways to do those movements that didn’t have to do with moving. They said things about energy and being able to control it; things about having something special inside you that didn’t have to do with how big or how athletic or how difficult or how technically well-executed those moves were; things about being able to look bigger than in real life and to draw every single pair of eyes in the audience towards you. These dancers gave a name to this thing they were talking about, they called it presence.

The little boy nodded and smiled without having really understood what the experienced dancers were talking about. One day, one of them told him that working on presence was maybe a better investment long-term, because presence doesn’t deteriorate as the body grows old like the big and the athletic and the difficult and the technically well-executed moves do.

He didn’t understand yet what the experienced dancer was talking about but he decided to believe her and work from that day on striving for presence. Only then he realised he didn’t go to watch dance that often and thought that maybe it was about time to start doing so. In this way he could maybe understand as a spectator what that thing called presence was.

This little boy grew older and now here I am, catching up with the growth of my body and wondering sometimes where did presence leave me. Don’t get me wrong, as a performer I’m still striving for presence but as a spectator I don’t know anymore where presence is and where it is not… to be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I saw it. A few times I think I saw a performance where the dancer’s presence left me speechless but more often than not the performer’s presence isn’t part of my appreciation when I watch dance. I used to complain about it a lot. Now, I don’t do even that.

Where was/is presence then?

Could it be that it is all a myth? Maybe that truth that I decided to believe wasn’t ever true, or maybe isn’t as important now as it was for my dance teachers back then. If so, what on earth am I doing trying to strive for presence as a performer? However, something tells me that the work I do as a performer is heading in the right direction.

If it isn’t a myth, is it then my problem? Do I have anything wrong in my brains that doesn’t let me experience it and enjoy it? Well, that could be the case. Maybe I watched so much dance that I can tell the difference between one flavour and the other, although I certainly doubt that.

I still wanted to believe in presence so I learnt to accept that it was my problem, “It probably is that I don’t know how to watch and keep my attention focused…” but then I saw four performances that changed my mind. I saw presence vividly, and this presence emanated from three bigger-than-life personas. Only it happened that these performances weren’t dance.

In a period of just over a month I saw David Hoyle, Panti Bliss and Christeene and their drag acts.

First, I saw David Hoyle at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on 29 May. David had invited Panti Bliss to the Tavern and the evening was a combination of David’s speech act and Panti’s confession plus lip-syncing, including an interview with Panti as well as the painting of her portrait by David.

Second, I went to Duckie’s Gay Shame Lesbian Weakness party where Christeene performed. I didn’t know Christeene until that night. S/he, who is regarded as a genderqueer drag terrorist, and h/er two backing performers, C Baby and T Gravel, gave a small taster of their show The Christeene Machine. I was very close to the stage at that party and Christeene interacted with the audience and h/er performers. She spited, touched, showed h/er penis whilst shaking it aggressively, grabbed heads forcing them into h/er covered and bare crotch and gave and received rimming several times during the show.

Although I didn’t get dirty that night (my own sweat apart) I knew after seeing the show that I wanted more from h/er. I found out that Christeene, who had come all the way from Austin, Texas, was having performances all over Europe with two highlights in London, one at Soho Theatre and the other at Vogue Fabrics, and so I followed h/er.

At Soho Theatre Christeene and h/er dancers performed the full version of The Christeene Machine. A music gig à la mode with costume changes and intricate choreographies slash queer evangelisation slash body fluids performer-audience interaction slash explicit and subversive acts against the heteronorm. She talked about the little pony we all have in our bellies that is being poisoned by the “world up there” but which also wants to trot free. She told us to come back into the woods like when we were children; to that place where nobody could know about or tell us off for the things we did there when we set our ponies free. And she praised a Grace Jones without face who had guided us into Soho Theatre’s basement on that night.

At Vogue Fabrics, David Hoyle was again the host and this time Christeene was the starring guest. David once more interviewed his guest although this time it was Christeene who painted David’s portrait. The audience knew that Christeene and h/er performers would have a go with the repertoire of songs and speeches that they had been performing in Europe since May (it was then 7 July), although this wouldn’t happen until David married a self-proclaimed 5 year-old Christeene, tying the knot by rimming the bride. Vogue Fabrics’ basement was packed and boiling, and the heated wedding ceremony had increased the temperature a few degrees. The walls and ceilings were dripping with condensation and this time Christeene’s spits and crotch-grabbings hit me. I guess I’m not that innocent and naïve any longer.

But, what really hit me from all these performances? The answer is the presence all three performers show.

I guess the content of the shows, because of their political content with which I feel represented, has to do with my perception of the performances. I find their truths are important, and that it is important they are spoken. Maybe this is one of the key elements. They are speaking, not only with words but with each action of their performance, the “truth.” These are their truths, obviously, as much as each person may have their own truths about things. Talking a truth to which they are fully committed, that they fully believe in and for which they will go far in order to defend it. And this conviction renders performances that are fully present.

You could see it in David’s sparkly eyes, on Panti’s shaky hands and on Christeene’s ecstasy. Obviously presence is not a quality that all drag queens have. I can’t help but wonder who are the Davids, Pantis and Christeenes in dance and, more importantly, where they are… or maybe, why I can’t see them.

(Christeene is presenting The Christeene Machine at Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 23 August).