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Gerard & Kelly’s State Of
Courtesy of MOCA, photo by Elon Schoenholz

Gerard & Kelly use pole dancing to architect a new vision of America

The choreographer-artist duo’s ‘State Of’ envisions a new America, featuring Whitney Houston’s ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, NYC’s subway pole dancers, and the 1968 Olympic Black Power Salute

Three men stand on a platform in the middle of a makeshift stage at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA’s satellite space WAREHOUSE in Los Angeles, one more elevated than the next. At the bottom, a white man holds his hands closed into fists and flanked at his sides. Slightly above him are two black men, their heads bowed, their fists also closed and each holds one arm stretched upwards. It’s a callback to the now-famous 1968 Olympic Black Power Salute, and this is how Gerard & Kelly’s performance State of begins.

The arrival of the three performers, Forty Smooth, Quenton Stuckey, and Ryan Kelly – each wearing contemporary takes of American athletic uniforms, designed by Gypsy Sport’s Rio Uribe – are accompanied by a trumpet player, who weaves through the audience, sounding out a sombre tune, which is then played, re-played, and distorted. Forty walks to an elevated pole and unzips his jacket to reveal a distressed American flag shirt with long tassels, and pole dances to Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, originally performed at the 1991 Super Bowl, himself becoming the flag.

It’s symbols such as these, utilised throughout the length of the performance, that Brennan Gerard, Ryan Kelly, and their collaborator Forty Smooth harness to explore questions of intersectionality and national American identity. “And how the experience of being American is different for people based on the differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality,” adds Kelly, who spoke to Dazed ahead of the US premiere of State of. What unfolds is a breathtaking performance that, although rife with references that speak to black American culture and the complicated and thoroughly violent history of their experience in the United States, does not over-intellectualise the issues to a place of unreachability. In fact, there are light moments too; music, audience inclusion, games, dancing, all of which lead the audience towards the idea that, while this country does not grant the same freedoms for everyone, if we face and respect our differences, it will also spotlight our similarities. Ahead of State Of, Dazed caught up with one-half of Gerard & Kelly, Ryan Kelly, on the intentions and expectations of the performance.

“We wanted to really centre around this question of American identity and how the experience of being American is different for people based on the differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality” – Ryan Kelly

How did the idea for this project come about?

Ryan Kelly: The first time that we performed the work was in 2017 for the opening of FIAC, the Contemporary Art Fair in Paris, and that time it was presented as very site-specific for the Grand Palais, where the work was being shown. We were thinking about various questions of nationalism and started to work very site specifically. After that, we reflected on it and felt that the scale of those questions was too large. We wanted to really centre around this question of American identity and how the experience of being American is different for people based on the differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality – and that kind of became the core of the project.

Given the timelines – first 2017, and now 2020, post-election year, and this crucial election year – I'm assuming that these had a big influence in the motion of this performance.

Ryan Kelly: Yeah. And also why we were so focused on bringing the work back to the US because it's just been performed several times in Europe, but with the election year and this heightened moment of both nationalism and identity politics, the left and the right, we felt it was important to ask these questions that are more about intersectionality. Asking if it's possible, even for the duration of the performance, to suspend some of the histories of the violence that has kept us separated from one another. If, for the duration of the performance, we might be able to suspend that and meet across those differences.

What are some of the nuances that have allowed you to hone in the performance to speak more specifically to the United States?

Ryan Kelly: We focused on these few symbols of American identity, specifically the flag and the national anthem, that carry with them long histories of violence. We wanted to play with them and see if they could be used to mean something different for the three of us in the performance. There are several iterations of the anthem, several variations of it, we deal with the flag in different ways, and actually, we're really playing with these symbols. We have a critical engagement with them, but we're also looking for what they can be used for. Like, is there anything left in these symbols to celebrate or are they completely bankrupt? We get a lot of propositions over the time of the performance.

The collaborators in this performance, Forty Smooth, Quenton Stuckey, and Rio Uribe from Gypsy Sport, are all pretty iconoclastic to the mainstream, in their own ways. How did these collaborations come about? They’re all such voices for New York, which feels important in itself.

Ryan Kelly: It's a New York cast, totally. These collaborations, and every collaboration in our projects, tend to arise organically and by chance. We pay a lot of attention to that. We met Forty Smooth in 2014 when we were in residence at the New Museum for the first project that we started with the pole dance. We were specifically interested in feminist and queer appropriations of pole dancing, nightclubs, women dancing, these kinds of experiences that people were having, and we were very curious about these reuses of pole dancing. We were doing that research at the museum and taking the train in from Brooklyn and encountering the showtime dancers, who were innovating their own form of pole dance, using the subway in an increasingly criminalised environment, truly very much unsafe for the mostly young men who were exploring this movement. Through some various connections we met Forty, I think he was 20 at the time or even younger, and we just hit it off, we worked together on the project at the New Museum, and then we stayed close and we did several projects together leading up to this one.

We were already following Gypsy Sport – of course, we were fans – but by chance, Rio came to the performances at the New Museum and posted about the work, so we were like, ‘Oh, Rio likes this project!’ We reached out at the time to connect, and when we started working on State of in Paris, we went to Rio right away, telling him we wanted to do something with the flag, and Rio came up with the deconstructed pieces that are in the performance.

Quenton was not part of the original performance in Paris. Because we were thinking site-specifically, we were working with a French dancer of South African descent and a Greek dancer who was an immigrant in France, because we were dealing with different questions. But once we redirected the work around American identity, we knew that we wanted to hear the National Anthem, so we'd have to find this unique performer who was both an incredible dancer and an incredible singer, and that's how we got to Quenton.

I lived in New York and experienced the subway showtime, which everyone enjoys so much except the police – which is based so clearly on racial prejudices and politics, like Bloomberg's ‘Stop and Frisk’. It's part of the general climate there that people of colour are not allowed to take up public space as everybody else is, so it's a really important piece to present that dialogue.

Ryan Kelly: Totally. It's also about class because the gentrification of these neighbourhoods makes for less and less public space, so the train becomes one of the few – we could say – contestable public spaces that have not been privatised, so it's a place for communities to form. The showtime dancers on the train are busking for money, and that's part of it, but they’re also innovating a cultural movement. I think you're right, if it were by some other group than teenage, black men, there might be a different response.

With this being the premiere of the performance in the US, and considering the importance of this election year, what do you want the audience take away to be? 

Ryan Kelly: Personally, when I think about the public and the takeaway, I hope that we succeed in raising this question about intersectionality. About the possibility for people to appreciate and accept the differences of cultural experience among us, and really trying to stay in the room with each other, despite differences – sometimes truly violent histories of difference.

There's another aspect of context that has arisen recently, which is this new elevation of pole dancing into a newly defined art form that is seeping into mainstream culture. From JLo's recent Super Bowl performance and in Hustlers to FKA twigs. What to you is the importance of this form of dance as a defiant language?

Ryan Kelly: There has always been one queer strategy of art-making, which is going back to those forms that were considered kitsch or low and to take them out of the wastebasket of the ruins of culture and to play with them, elevate them, see what's possible. I'm not surprised. I think this, specifically, is about connecting to, as you said before, a very specific cultural form that comes from New York City, in terms of the subway pole. You could say as pole dancing becomes more visible and global, it’s on its way to becoming part of the Olympics as well as a competition. Can the story of pole dancing include what these young men of colour were developing in the subways in New York over the past ten years? I think that is super important.