The UpStairs Lounge & The Return of Narrative Dance

By Ann Glaviano

The estimable Mr. B once noted, “It might be a good idea to call all ballets Swan Lake. That way, people will come!”

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Mr. B is more commonly known as George Balanchine—the Russian emigré who founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 and New York City Ballet in 1948, where he developed and refined a new style of ballet known as “neoclassical.” Balanchine’s Swan Lake snark is borne of his predilection as a choreographer for abstraction. Swan Lake, like other repertory stalwarts Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Giselle, and Don Quixote (among many, many others), is a story ballet, so called because its goal is narrative: to tell a story with characters and a clear plot. All of these wildly popular ballets are from the 19th century; indeed, most Romantic and Classical ballets from the 19th century were story ballets. Enter Balanchine, with more interest in mood than story, in dance for movement’s sake. He stripped his work of cumbersome pantomime and plot devices. His famous early ballet Serenade was just “a dance in the moonlight.” His retort, to those who asked for more narratorial specifics, was “a boy and a girl on the stage—how much story do you want?”

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Over time, Balanchine’s radical abstract approach became the choreographic norm; by the end of the 20th century, most new works were similarly abstract. The 19th-century story ballets persisted in the repertory because audiences loved them and they generated reliable ticket sales, but to produce a new story ballet seemed out of touch, pandering, maybe even a little corny. The few choreographers who elected to work in the story-ballet genre tended to rely on narratives familiar to the modern audience (Cinderella, Dracula, Romeo and Juliet, The Tales of Beatrix Potter). The reason behind this is straightforward: dance is in many ways an inefficient form for narration. With only gesture and music traditionally at their disposal, dance-makers must tell stories using broad strokes. Though great dancers must always be great actors, narrative nuance can be hard to come by. Performers rely on the audience’s previous familiarity with the stories to get across complicated plot points.

But despite these difficulties—and perhaps inevitably, as the pendulum swings—choreographers today are seriously reconsidering the deployment of narrative in dance, more than sixty years out of vogue. Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet, built his reputation in part by choreographing abstract works, but it was his full-length story ballet, Marie (about Marie Antoinette), that he presented to New Orleans in 2009. After his three-year study of abstraction with Morphoses, Christopher Wheeldon’s latest two works are contemporary ballet renditions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011) and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale (2014) for the Royal Ballet—both of which were met with excitement and acclaim and were screened nationwide in AMC Theatres.

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It is in this context that I consider The UpStairs Lounge, an evening-length piece of dance theater conceptualized and choreographed by Monica Ordoñez and presented by the Mélange Dance Company. I was provided a complimentary ticket and invited to review the work in its second staging at Cafe Istanbul on March 27, 2015; previously The UpStairs Lounge had been presented at the 2014 New Orleans Fringe Festival.

It’s usually a good idea, when tackling a new project, for an artist to ask herself: Why this project? Why here? Why now? In the case of The UpStairs Lounge, the answers are fairly self-evident. The piece, which runs about an hour long, tells a history of the New Orleans queer community in the early 1970s, with the central event being an arson attack on the popular queer French Quarter hangout The UpStairs Lounge. Thirty-two people died in the fire; it was (and, according to my research, remains) both the deadliest arson attack in the history of New Orleans and the largest massacre of queer people in United States history. The prominence of the issue of gay rights in our present-day collective consciousness, the lack of public awareness of the attack at the UpStairs Lounge, and the local setting make Ms. Ordoñez’s choice of topic feel timely and relevant to her audience.

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A body of work does already exist about the UpStairs Lounge attack, some of which has been presented locally in the past decade. I learned of the UpStairs Lounge attack in 2008, through a Prospect.1 installation at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans by artist Skylar Fein, titled “Remember the UpStairs Lounge.” A documentary titled The UpStairs Lounge Fire, by Royd Anderson, was aired on local television in 2013. Also in 2013, the musical Upstairs by Wayne Self premiered at Cafe Istanbul. In 2014, Louisiana author Clayton Delery-Edwards published a historical account, The UpStairs Lounge Arson, that was named Book of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. And at least two other documentaries appear to be in progress (Tracking Fire) or forthcoming (UpStairs Inferno) in 2015. To her credit, Ms. Ordoñez is intimately familiar with this body of work, appears to have developed functional relationships with those responsible for producing it, and seeks to incorporate and acknowledge the existing research and existing narratives at every available opportunity.

Such vigilance does, at some points, hamstring The UpStairs Lounge as a work of dance theater. The piece is presently conceived as an integration of documentary film and dance. Pragmatically this means that we start with a documentary film clip; then dancers emerge, perform to music, and exit; we see another documentary film clip; dancers again emerge and perform to music; and so on. The documentary clips effectively communicate the narrative of the UpStairs Lounge arson; indeed, my assumption is that Ms. Ordoñez relies on the documentary clips because she wants to ensure that the audience leaves with a firm grasp of the historical events. If her goal is, at least in part, to raise awareness of the attack, it’s understandable that she would want to share this wealth of visually compelling documentation with her audience. And, of course, dance is a notoriously difficult medium for narrative. If you want to tell a story through dance, remember, the choreographic default is to choose a story that practically everyone already knows. The UpStairs Lounge is not exactly Cinderella in terms of broad public familiarity.

I would argue, though, that Ms. Ordoñez and her company have in fact made an excellent choice in taking on the narrative of the UpStairs Lounge, and they could achieve their artistic and humanistic goals without most or all of the documentary film supplementation. Right now, the film clips do all the necessary narrative work, and the dance interludes function as a sort of redundant “dramatic re-enactment” of the previous clip. Set to musical selections with lyrics that broadcast their thematic intentions (e.g., the conclusion of the show, demonstrating a moment of unity among the queer community, is set to “United We Stand”), the dance pieces feel a bit too on-the-nose. I suspect a decreased reliance on the documentary clips would have two desirable effects: first, that the broadly narrative moments of the dancing would feel useful, rather than overly literal and redundant, as the audience tries to grasp the story; and second, that Ms. Ordoñez might become more comfortable abstracting from the history and the documentation, affording her greater freedom in her scenic and choreographic choices.

Cutting down or eliminating the documentary film clips would also smooth out some technical difficulties. For example, in the performance that I attended, the audience frequently could see the video playback buttons as the clips began, and the audio transitions between the clips and the live dancing were choppy: a song would begin to play in the film clip, then we’d experience a moment of silence—presumably as the technical crew was switching the sound over to the dance audio—and then we would hear the same song beginning again as the dancers entered. These moments felt as though the seams of the work were unintentionally on display; they degraded the professionalism of the presentation. I also was surprised to see commercials (“teaser-trailers”) for upcoming documentaries about the UpStairs Lounge attack interjected into the show. While I wholeheartedly admire Ms. Ordoñez for going to such lengths to credit her sources, the commercials were jarring departures from the world of her piece.

Ms. Ordoñez, in addition to being a contemporary choreographer interested in classical vocabulary, is herself a skilled contemporary dancer with an appealing lyric quality, and she has a wealth of well-trained, well-rehearsed dancers with confidence and great physical facility in the Mélange Dance Company. I suspect that I was invited to review the piece based on my statement, in another review of recent performances by Complexions Contemporary Ballet and the Marigny Opera House Dance Company, that I am tired to death of heteronormative partnering in contemporary dance. It comes as no surprise that The UpStairs Lounge features non-heteronormative partnering—and yes, I was thrilled to see it. Not only did I enjoy the duets between Braedon Mason and Cody Cody (“My Body,” “John and Jane Golding”), but I also was delighted, in the latter section, by the moments in which Jane Golding (played by Elizabeth Mantalas) supported her male partner. Throughout the show, whether the dancers’ interactions were tender and delicate or athletic and high-flying, the partnering was expertly executed, thematically resonant, and exciting to watch.

I also cheered Cody Cody’s drag impersonation of Liza Minnelli (“You Have to Understand the Way I Am…Mein Herr”). His costume and makeup were effective in helping to create his character—which is not Liza herself, but meta-Liza, drag Liza. And he is a classy mover, tall and imposing and graceful, and exactly as crass as he needs to be. I did wish, though, that his part of the “Mein Herr” section had been less of a pantomimed recreation of the Cabaret film scene and even more of a loose interpretation. And though I appreciate demonstrations of technical skill, Liza’s back-up dancers (Alexa Erck Lambert and Gianni Reid) seemed out of place as they performed grand jetés and tours à la seconde—I was craving choreography that, like Liza’s performance, was a bit more deranged.

Because New Orleans has very few venues adequate for dance presentation and within reach of the DIY dance-maker budget (and nearly all dance-makers in town are working with a DIY budget), I’d like to make a few notes on Cafe Istanbul as a dance venue. Located in the back of the Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue, the two-story theater comfortably seats (by my estimate) more than 100 patrons and offers a powerful sound system and the flexibility of a multimedia display. It also boasts a side bar and the ambiance of a romantic, divey cabaret club. The stage is small and close to the audience, which has its benefits and opportunities, but a chief drawback is that large, traveling movements are not too feasible and intricate choreographic patterns are likely to go unseen. The Mélange dancers made use of both the elevated stage and the floor space immediately in front of the stage to accomplish their movement. I wouldn’t recommend the space for dance-makers interested in large casts and athletic choreography, but more self-contained movement could likely be successfully presented at Cafe Istanbul. The lighting for this show was basic and not particularly interesting—it’s unclear from the program notes whether or not the lighting design was done in-house—but the venue does seem to have the requisite set-up available for dance-makers who want to bring in a lighting designer.

Ms. Ordoñez is clearly a dance-maker who sees the value in restaging and refining her work. With all of the recent and upcoming documentary and theatrical work, and corresponding media coverage, about the UpStairs Lounge attack, I believe the story is gaining sufficient traction—in at least the local public consciousness—for Mélange Dance Company to successfully re-envision The UpStairs Lounge as a stand-alone piece of narrative dance theater—a contemporary story ballet that fits into a modern global trend in dance-making. And, far from pandering to the audience, or merely staging a dance version of an already familiar tale, as so many story-ballet choreographers have done, The UpStairs Lounge can perform the valuable and radical work of raising awareness of this historical event while telling an emotionally compelling story of the trials and triumphs of the local queer community.

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How (and When, and Why) to Write a Good Bad Review

By Ann Glaviano

Last year at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, I attended a panel discussion on how to write a good bad book review, facilitated by my pal Dan Kois. In the land of books, as in the land of concert dance, we have a lot of anxiety about providing critical/negative feedback to others in our artistic community – why to do it, how to do it, when to do it, and what the possible consequences are. We probably all agree that real feedback – about the good and the bad in our work – keeps us honest as artists, and more importantly, keeps our art moving forward. And we probably all agree that someone needs to speak up (just as long as it isn’t you…). If you feel intimidated by the idea of writing a negative review, or even a review with a negative sentence or two in it, here are three points to consider.

1) When is a wholly negative review warranted?

Most of the panelists agreed that negative feedback in a review should be in proportion to the hype and resources at the artist’s disposal. The popular analogy in use here is don’t bring a gun to a knife fight. The review writer ends up looking like a jerk and the artist like a victim.

To use an example from book land: a slim poetry volume by an obscure author published as a labor of love and charity by a tiny indie press probably wouldn’t warrant a scathing review, even if you think the book is awful. Why? Because most people would never have even heard of the book otherwise, and because you risk killing the author’s chances of selling that book or any other book, ever again. Conversely, if there’s a book written by an extremely well-known and widely read author that is getting major hype by the media machine – if everyone you know is probably going to read this book and it’s going to have reviews in every paper, large and small – and you have read this book and you think this book is problematic, mediocre, undeserving of the hype – this book might be worth tackling in a “bad” review. Why? In the words of one of the panelists, because a reviewer’s job is to clear away the mediocre and overhyped so there is room for work that actually deserves our attention.

In a small dance community like New Orleans, few companies and collectives have resources, in terms of money and media attention, that would warrant a slam. If few people even know or care that a particular group is trying to make work, why bother writing a slam review? It doesn’t clear space for better work to get attention – the work wasn’t getting attention in the first place. One could argue that even the better-funded local companies and collectives would suffer real damage by a scathing review – that there is not a sufficiently broad base of support for local dance, period, and therefore we cannot afford to publicly present a negative response to local work.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer any negative feedback. A review that attempts to understand the artist’s project, acknowledge what elements of the work were successful in the context of this project, and note some areas that weren’t as successful, with some ideas regarding why they weren’t as successful – this is constructive critical feedback. It helps the artist move forward. (For a healthy local example of how this can work, see any article by Gambit food writer Sarah Baird, who virtually always offers a point or two of negative feedback alongside many paragraphs of glowing endorsement. Her philosophy seems to be that we always have a little room to grow.)

And remember, plenty of well-funded work comes through town on tour. A local review with negative feedback is small potatoes to an internationally renowned touring company – it does them no damage – but it might help guide our local presenting organizations in their selection of touring companies in the future.

2) A good bad review: It’s complicated

In another discussion of reviews at the same conference, a panelist noted that we typically think of reviews as “thumbs up” (an endorsement) or “thumbs down” (a slam) – in short, the review is a judgment. But the point of the review – and the value in reading it – is insight into the process of judging, not the judgment itself. The key question in a review becomes “what does this work do for me” – not “should you buy a ticket to this performance.” At present, virtually all of our local media coverage of dance performance is, in essence, promotion. That’s great; we need all the promotional help we can get. And this also means that, as reviewers, we’re off the hook in terms of dissuading or convincing people to see a particular show. We’re left with the opportunity to instead offer reflection – what does this work do for me?

In the “good bad book review” panel, Dan Kois pointed out that the internal response on which a negative review is predicated is usually pretty complex. He offered an example of what he called a “bad bad review” – an unsuccessful or unhelpful bad review – in which the reviewer expressed displeasure with a book by saying it was “disappointing.” Disappointing, Dan noted, is a word that contains a multitude of complex emotions. Unfortunately, the reviewer didn’t bother to unpack her feelings of “disappointment”; she did not offer her process of judging but only the judgment itself. A “good bad review,” on the other hand, would have done the difficult but interesting work of untangling this complicated response. The same principle holds for dance reviews, good and bad.

3) Putting negative feedback into broader perspective

Reviews don’t have to be short pieces that focus only on one dance presentation. Reviews can be embedded into essays that tackle any number of topics, where the reviewed work is merely one example and serves as a springboard into the discussion of a larger issue. The review/essay can critique not (just) the work itself but also what the work represents, buys into, or tries to promote. A review/essay is capacious enough to put multiple works in conversation with each other. It’s also a great opportunity to offer historical context or to identify and analyze trends. And because the focus of the piece isn’t on one specific “bad review,” it’s much less likely that the review/essay will be perceived as a slam.

Breaking Basic

By Ann Glaviano

I recently read an article criticizing the use of the slur basic bitch (which, in its current mainstream iteration, connotes something like “Average Oblivious Middle-Class Female Consumer With Mall-Fashion Sensibility”) on the grounds that to position yourself against so-called basic bitches is to endorse “a male hierarchy of culture.” In other words, it’s problematic to dismiss “basic” interests — Loves Reading Cosmo, Drinks Skinnygirl Margaritas — because to trivialize those things means aligning yourself with a long history of What Women Like Is Always Frivolous And Low Culture.

A friend of mine pointed out that, although the phrase basic bitch is indeed fundamentally misogynistic, basic also contains, at its core, “the idea of being not just the willing receiver of that which is hollowly mass-produced but also the [primary] target.” He went on to explain that, in its earliest iterations, basic bitch was an anti-normative critique used by queer people of color in New York’s trans-femme scene. In this context, to critique something as basic is to call out its blithe reliance on the Default.

Generally speaking, the Default looks like this: Straight. White. Male. Not-poor. Gender-normy. Able-bodied. And although I personally would be happy to see the end of misogynistic slurs like basic bitch, I see a great deal of value in the critique of our reliance on the Default.

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You’ve probably heard of Misty Copeland. She’s a soloist for American Ballet Theatre, and she’s made herself a household name, or what passes for one in the context of classical ballet, by campaigning for greater racial diversity among ballet companies. Specifically, her stated goal is “to become the first African-American principal dancer with ABT.”

Technically, ABT already met that goal back in 1997, when Desmond Richardson became their first African-American principal dancer. But Desmond Richardson is a man; seventeen years later, ABT still has not promoted a black woman to principal. They haven’t even had another black female soloist since Nora Kimball in the mid-80s. And ABT is not the outlier among ballet companies in terms of gross underrepresentation. Far from it. Susan Fales-Hill, a former ABT board member, compares the racial diversity of most ballet companies in 2014 to that of “an Alabama country club in 1952.”

Ballet’s race problem has, in fact, spurred the creation of new ballet companies. Arthur Mitchell, the first black male principal dancer at New York City Ballet, was motivated in 1969 to found the first black classical ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem. And after his star turn at ABT, Desmond Richardson went on to found Complexions Contemporary Ballet, whose stated mission is an “appreciation for the artistic & aesthetic appeal of the multicultural.”

Complexions performed this fall at NOCCA’s Lupin Hall, and I brought my boyfriend, a dance neophyte, with me to the show. Beforehand, I explained some of the historical context for the formation of an integrated company named “Complexions.” I told him that one of the (lame) excuses given, even today, for maintaining an all-white company is that it creates an appearance of uniformity on the stage, and to have, say, one or two dancers with darker skin appearing amidst the corps de ballet would distract somehow from the dancing. As we watched Complexions perform, however, we both marveled at the impact of watching a truly diverse company at work — which is to say that, far from serving as a distraction, the race of the dancers actually became irrelevant to our absorption of the dance.

It’s not that there’s never a reason to consider or call attention to the race of a performer. Some dance-makers intentionally exploit the race of their dancers to help draw out the themes of their work. Kyle Abraham’s “Pavement,” performed at the CAC last winter, is a good example of such a choreographic strategy. But this is quite a distinct practice from the wholesale exclusion of a race of people in the employment of a dance company because the directors believe their skin tone doesn’t fit with their “aesthetic.” This aesthetic, needless to say, clings desperately to the Default. (There are other common excuses for racial discrimination, like “black girls are too muscular” or “their feet aren’t as flexible” — and these excuses are equally bogus.) Anyone who suffers doubts regarding the potential beauty of real integration on the stage needs only to watch Complexions at work to see these excuses laid to waste.

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New Orleans is a diverse city, and more than 60% of the population is black. Sometimes, in some ways, New Orleans is well integrated. This statement also applies, I think, to the dance community. Sometimes, in some ways, our community is well integrated. Sometimes we put up work with a diverse cast of dancers (e.g., the October performance of the Marigny Opera House Dance Company). Sometimes our dance classes are attended by a diverse range of students (e.g., the Friday-morning ballet class on offer at NOBA’s Chevron studio this fall). Sometimes not.

The ballet studio that I call home right now has a relatively small population of advanced high-school students, and all but two of those students are white. (Why? There are lots of possible reasons, including the fact that, at present, two public high schools and a nonprofit organization offer advanced, tuition-free ballet instruction and serve a large number of black students.) What’s particularly interesting to me about the lack of diversity at this studio is that, on the studio’s marketing materials, the one advanced black student is often prominently featured. The cynical side of me thinks this is a form of tokenism. On the other hand, this student has been cast previously as Clara in their production of The Nutcracker, and she’s since served as a soloist and line leader (a featured position and one of responsibility that assumes the dancer can remember choreography with confidence, understand musical cues, and model steps correctly for the dancers behind her) in the more advanced Nutcracker dances. Far from being exploited in marketing materials and otherwise ignored, she is regularly complimented and called upon in class to demonstrate steps as a model for the younger dancers. And I wonder what it signifies to have the white directors of a mostly white studio behave as though they stand to benefit from showcasing (even inaccurately) the diversity of their educational space. Tokenism, maybe. But given the persistent rejection of racial diversity in classical ballet, it seems to me that to wishfully promote the image of your ballet studio as racially integrated is both a commonsense business strategy in a city like New Orleans and also a powerful break from the Default.

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Though this year’s Complexions performance demonstrated the triumphant results of their radical stance “that dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them” in regard to racial diversity, it fell short for me in its relentless promotion of heteronormativity. Because, in addition to ballet’s race problem, the form also suffers from a gender problem. Alistair Macauley explains it nicely:

When a woman steps onto pointe in arabesque, she can at once become something other than a woman: she can become a work of ideal geometry. That’s thrilling, and I’ve loved it ever since I first saw ballet. But this is something about which – living in a world that has been reshaped by the struggle for gender equality — we should also all feel a certain ambiguity. Ballet is a sexist art. In fact, I often say that it is the sexist art — the one and only art that’s based upon the dichotomy between male and female. He is not permitted to step on pointe (except occasionally as a comic or character effect). She is not permitted to promenade him or support him in pirouettes. I must admit that I love ballet as an art of chivalry, and I enjoy the fact that its sexism is to the woman’s advantage rather than the man’s. But I regret that the chivalry is really only one-way. Too often the sexism and acrobatics of ballet can be just mindless, and without any serious connection to the way we live today.

Now, I understand that classical ballet is a codified form following specific traditions and, for the most part, preoccupied with the preservation of dance works that are over one hundred years old. These works will forever represent gender and sexuality within a tightly limited scope and the primary issues to be considered (that should be considered) concern why, when, and in what context we continue to stage them.

But in contemporary ballet, the representations of gender and sexuality become another matter altogether. The dance-makers are absolutely free to portray human relationships in their full and glorious array. The pas de deux can comprise men supporting women, women supporting men, men supporting men, women supporting women. There is no requirement or need to adhere to the Default. Indeed, when you consider the ceaselessly heteronormative world-building enacted by classical ballet, it seems that contemporary ballet-makers would jump at the chance to correct this vision – to build worlds on the stage that connect authentically, as Macauley says, with “the way we live today.”

Sadly, such a connection never materialized in the Complexions performance. Every opportunity for partnering relied on the traditional male-female pairings. The company executed these moments (of which there were many) with elegance, precision, and an obsessive attention to musicality. But by the second intermission, I had turned to my boyfriend to confess that the lack of variety in the partnering was starting to grate on me. I was surprised and disappointed that this limitation persisted from the beginning of the show to the end.

If contemporary ballet is permitted the freedom to break with traditional heteronormative expectations, it follows that dance-makers working within contemporary and modern dance forms — developed in the twentieth century as a response to and rejection of ballet’s codified movements and narrative structures — would be even more likely to break out of this Default mode. I eagerly attended October’s premiere of the Marigny Opera House Dance Company — self-styled as a modern dance company — only to leave frustrated, once again, by an evening of dance played pathologically straight. Not only was all the partnering male-female, but with only one exception — one lift in one duet in Maya Taylor’s “Selcouth Liaison” — the men lifted the women. The women — all strong, capable, skilled dancers — were virtually never permitted to lift the men.

I call this kind of dance-making “pathologically straight” because when it’s considered in light of the lived experiences and sensibilities of the performers and dance-makers, the insistence on heterosexual, heteronormative dynamics on the stage becomes alarming, if not downright farcical. Certainly queer and/or non-gender-normative directors, choreographers, and performers — of which we have many — are entitled to enact heteronormative relationships on the stage if such an exploration interests them. But when this dynamic — the Default — is enacted to the exclusion of any other — without the benefit of the rich variety that these artists know and embrace in their offstage lives — it strikes me as a potent opportunity unnecessarily lost.

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The history of concert dance is in many respects a sad and troubling story, but we have no reason to perpetuate these problems in our contemporary companies and our contemporary works. And frankly, as a dancer, dance-maker, and dance lover: I’m bored by the basic. It makes me restless for more — for the onstage representation of an expansive worldview, one that comes closer to touching the enormous range of our offstage reality. And that reality is: We are not all white. We are not all straight. We are not all able-bodied. We do not all live in comfort and financial stability. Our expressions of gender are multitudinous. We are so much more than what is offered by Default. And this human range is what I’m hoping — craving — to see honored and explored in our artistic practices.