Chicago is not lacking queer spaces in the arts, and that includes dance and performance art.
Now in its ninth season, the Fly Honey Show remains a highly anticipated staple on the annual dance calendar. A one-night-only endeavor when it launched in 2009, the inclusive burlesque cabaret now runs five weekends starting Thursday, Aug. 9, at Wicker Park's Den Theatre. In its 27th season, Dance for Life ( coming up Aug. 18 at the Auditorium Theatre ) has been a force for good since its founding at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Other productions have left their mark: Joseph Varisco began his series QUEER, ILL + OKAY In 2012. The ever-popular Salonathon had a healthy six-year run before folding in February. Like the ( now defunct ) Poonie's Cabaret, they all created a welcoming performance platform for queer and gender non-conforming artists.
But many would say that Chicago's dance community is actually a collection of communities, with a divide between the underground and the concert dance world. Inclusivity and visibility for LGBTQ performers in the larger, more profitable concert dance space lags far behind other art forms.
Stuck in the gender binary of princes and princesses, concert dance offers few examples outside the cisgendered, heteronormative roles inundating the field since the 1800s.
The struggle to be seen
San Francisco-based choreographer Sean Dorsey was the first openly transgender dance artist to receive national attention, and is a leading advocate for trans equality in dance. Dorsey's newest work"Boys in Trouble," which saw its East Coast premiere July 12 at the Bates Dance Festivalbrings queer and trans narratives about masculinity to the stage.
"Every choice I make, every work I create or perform and every conversation I have in the dance field occurs in the context of me being surrounded, judged and defined by cisgender people," said Dorsey ( who uses he/him/his pronouns ). "All the people with power in the dance field are cisgender. That's a problem!
"Some of the challenges I face on a daily basis include the struggle to have my work seen and enjoyed without having to explain my identity first; not being able to safely or legally use a bathroom while ( constantly ) touring across the country; and never having had a transgender contemporary dance elder or mentor I could lean on," he said.
Casting ambiguity: Presentation or extension?
Local trans and gender non-conforming dancers cite similar challenges. Kaitlyn Dessoffy ( they/them/their ) dances for J. Lindsay Brown Dance and Lucid Banter Project. Their partner, Mags Bouffard, has also danced with Lucid Banter Project and was previously in Zephyr Dance. Dessoffy will audition for anything and everything, but says, "It's really hard to know if the reason I'm not getting cast is because my extension is 90-degrees on the best day of my life, or because I'm really hairy and also look like a girl."
A home in the hive
Andy Slavin ( they/them/their ) grew up in a small town in California, moving to Chicago to attend Columbia College. They currently dance with Kristina Isabelle, Emma Draves and as part of the Fly Honey Show's masculine "hive."
Entering college, Slavin identified as a woman. "I didn't even know that gender non-conforming people were a thing," they said.
"I don't think my transition's over," said Slavin. "Every day I learn something new about myself, [but] I feel the most at home and comfortable with myself as I ever have."
Slavin, like Bouffard, is discerning about which projects they work on. "I don't want to be in spaces that don't want me as a performer. I feel like it's important to have agency and a sense of safety in your workplace," they said.
Crisis in plain sight
Columbia College has been a leader in embracing diversity in dance, providing a welcoming place for gender non-conforming artists. The Bates Dance Festival is another example, now led by Shoshona Currier, former director of performing arts for Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
But diversity in dance remains an uphill battle. For Darling Squire, more success has come as a solo artist than by pursuing a position within a company. Squire said this was a career decision dictated by both choice and necessity.
Dorsey doesn't mince words in describing the struggle. "I want my field to start using the word 'crisis' when it comes to the continued exclusion of gender-nonconforming people in dance," he said.
"Modern dance is currently vehemently anti-transgender. Heterosexual-only partnering and duets, binary-gendered roles and costumes, a lack of safe spaces to change or pee in studios and theaters, a lack of trans dance teachers ... These things won't change without trans and non-binary people in leadership roles," he said.
At the Joffrey, "signs of progressever so lightly"
There are signs of progress. The national conversation around trans equity is permeating the dance world, with works like "Boys in Trouble" and Cynthia Oliver's "Virago-Man Dem." There is increased visibility surrounding the challenges faced by gender non-conforming artists in the media. There are a number of recent examples of costumes breaking the gender mold too Luis Vazquez's "Sea of Comets" for Joffrey Academy's "Winning Works" and Peter Chu's "Divided Against" for Giordano Dance Chicago come to mind.
Even the Joffrey proper ( the Joffrey Academy is the official school of the professional company, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago ) is finding a way forward, sprinkling its seasons with contemporary works which press on the boundaries of convention, if ever-so-lightly. Last season's "Midsummer Night's Dream," which included queer romance scenes, contributed to the highest grossing season in company history. Brock Clawson's ( he/him/his ) 2012 "Crossing Ashland," originally set on the Milwaukee Ballet, gained less notice, but is notable for Clawson's gender-blind casting of the piece's central pas de deux.
The importance of transformation
Are these isolated incidents in a centuries-long erasure of any narrative that bucks cisgender, heterosexual norms? Hopefully, they aren't.
"Until the field prioritizes, supports and invests in trans and non-binary dance teachers, dance programmers, funding staff, writers and critics, dancers and choreographers, we will never achieve trans equity," Dorsey said. "We have to transform dance studios, theaters and schoolscreating safe bathrooms and changing rooms, investing in trans leadership and especially leadership by trans people of color and trans women."
Dorsey envisions a future where trans dancers are included and applauded.
"I dream of our full liberation and us being celebrated and held up as incredible, wise, beautiful, powerful [and] insightful."
For information on the Fly Honey Show, go to TheFlyHoneyShow.com . For information about Dance for Life, visit www.auditoriumtheatre.org/shows/danceforlife2018/ .