Nothing Without a Company ( NWaC ) has been pushing the boundaries of live theater in Chicago since 2005, with a specific focus on creating artistic opportunities for LGBTQ voices and stories.
Anna-Rose li-Epstein started NWaC with her wife, Hannah; together, the couple was voted one of Windy City Times' 30 under 30 in 2014. The group's latest project is a collaboration with The Living Canvas, a company that creates live art by casting projections onto the nude form. In the 1980s, Pete Guither began using the human body as a canvas in his photography, and extended the idea to live performance in 2001 by "clothing" performers in light and projected images throughout an evening.
Actor/director Gaby Labotka is the link between the two companies, having worked for both, she brought the idea of a collaboration to Ii-Epstein, who immediately saw an amazing opportunity to provide a new type of platform for trans and gender non-conforming actors and performers. The result is [Trans]formation, a series of vignettes that premiering Nov. 17 at the Flat Iron Building that is devised and performed by transgender, genderqueer, intersex and non-binary artists in the style of The Living Canvas.
Professional dancer/choreographer Darling Squire ( aka Darling Shear ) made their debut with NWaC at the company's inaugural gala, in which Darling was crowned "Queen of the Dead" after a show-stopping burlesque performance. Darling recreates, re-stages and re-enacts characters from classic dance and film genres, but with a hermaphroditic lens. Upon coronation at NWaC's gala, they are now co-choreographing in [Trans]formation. In an interview with Windy City Times, Darling talked about how audience members are sometimes surprised by their dancing.
"I thought it was common knowledge that I dance, but I guess not," they said. "People are aware that I'm a dancer… they just don't know how much training I have." Darling attended North Springs Charter School of the Arts and Sciences in Sandy Springs, Georgia, training in ballet, modern, jazz and African dance, and later working a long list of reputable choreographers and learning Gaga, a popular style of contemporary dance developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. Darling settled in Chicago in 2011, and their classical training continues to infuse their work as a performer. However, Darling's career transcends the typical dancer's path of performing with a company.
While the LGBTQ community is widely accepted and embraced by the dance community, it remains a largely heteronormative artform that is still hooked on clear delineations of masculine and feminine, and embraces stereotypical, binary ideas about gender. So for a classically trained, transgender and gender non-conforming dancers such as Darling, working with aesthetics ( and ideologies ) of many, if not most, choreographers constantly pits one's identity as a transgender person against one's identity as a dancer.
Fortunately, it doesn't have to be like that. Queer and gender non-conforming artists are driving a new dialogue in the theater and performance art worlds that confronts the stereotypes often present in dance, and Darling has found their voice as an artist in projects that are off the beaten path. But given their training and tremendous facility, I asked if they wished that companies were more accepting of transgender dancers. Did they opt for the avant-garde world out of choice or necessity?
"Back in the day, when I was a wee one," they said, "I always knew I'm a soloist. I can do group choreography and I love group choreography, but I'm a soloist. Working as a soloist gives Darling the freedom to use improvisation liberally, and like a baker kneading bread or a draper handling fabric, they would rather not overwork it. "I'll wait until I'm in the space to see where my body takes me," they said. "It's a little bit more genuine for me. I try to not touch it too much. ... [Dancing in a company] was never something that I actively wanted to do."
So it's a little ironic that the company called Nothing Without a Company recruited Darling, the dancer without a company, to work with it. Ii-Epstein and [Trans]formation director Labotka gave the ultimatum, daring Darling to show up at the first rehearsal. It was a wager that panned out, though Darling insists they would rather be behind the scenes. In keeping with Darling's choreographic values, the dancing in [Trans]formation is not entirely set; there's a clear structure for the group to follow, but room for improvisation to occur in the moment and some highlighting moments for the two other cast members who have dance training as well.
But what makes [Trans]formation different from everything else is use of nude trans and gender non-conforming bodies as a canvas. The performers represent a wide spectrum of bodiesin some cases bodies that do not match their gender identities. "This is addressed in the show," said Ii-Epstein, who goes on to explain that many of the performers identify as "they," do not subscribe to a male or female representation of their bodies, and therefore have no reason to cover or alter them. While most of the six performers will be fully nude, those who are transitioning may opt to cover parts of their bodies in flesh-colored tights to expose what they feel is a truer representation of their bodies. Though undressed, the images projected on the body are what clothe them, transforming their bodies into, well, pretty much anything they could dream of and building on the Living Canvas' mission to "celebrate and nurture the beauty and expressive power of all human bodies."
[Trans]formation runs through Dec. 17 at Collaboration Studios in the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Each performance will conclude with a talkback, and an ( optional ) opportunity for audience members to join the cast and experience in what it feels like to be transformed as a living canvasclothed or unclothed. Tickets are available at nothingwithoutacompany-thelivingcanvas-transformation.brownpapertickets.com/ .