The idea of an all-male dance troupe brings to mind muscles, athleticism, and power. But a fast-emerging troupe from New York City seeks to push past those stereotypes of masculinity, blending that physical energy with moments of vulnerability, tender sensuality, and heartfelt emotion.
Dancers Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz formed MADBOOTS Dance in 2011 with the idea of pushing beyond the clichés of male identity. They also mined their own experiences as gay males, as well as the political climate growing in the U.S. New York, after all, is the place that spawned Donald Trump.
“It does seem like our work has a little political charge,” explains Campbell from New York City, sharing the line with Diaz before the company heads here for its West Coast debut at the Chutzpah Festival. “That comes with our personal experiences growing up and being bullied, but also living in New York. And now, with this political election, topics of civil rights and equality seem like a daily topic. It’s a constant, and it’s really hard not to let that come into creation time.”
The duo met while working with Sidra Bell Dance New York, the bold company that Chutzpah has brought to town in previous years. “Sidra thought Austin and I looked really good together, and we ended up dancing a lot together. We had this immediate connection and chemistry dance-wise,” Campbell explains. “Then one day we just decided to rent out a space and work together. We seemed to be on the same wavelength of what we wanted to do.”
When the pair started working with a larger ensemble, themes of masculine identity really started to emerge. The five-dancer piece the troupe brings here takes a fearless look not just at queer identity and homophobia, but at the feelings men are forced to repress. (SAD BOYS), which debuted at the Jacob’s Pillow dance fest in 2015, is inspired by an Allen Ginsberg poem, “Song”, in which the writer longs to return “to the body/where I was born”, before society forced its expectations on it.
The costumes range from nude briefs to leather chest harnesses to white, gauzy masks that stretch eerily over the whole head; at certain points, giant homophobic epithets are projected onto the floor. In one of its signature theatrical touches, MADBOOTS fills one side of the stage with 300 pounds of shredded mulch that later spreads onto the dancing surface. “It stems from just wanting to enter a new space, just reimagine what a theatre is and take someone out of their lives for just an hour,” Diaz says of the pair’s love of dramatic settings.
Campbell stresses (SAD BOYS)’s messages spread beyond the queer experience. “Everyone at some point in time must have felt pressured to be what they’re not,” he says. “It’s not an uncommon thing, and that’s where I think people can relate beyond the sexuality topic. We don’t come into the studio every day saying, ‘What’s the gay issue today?’ ”
“We’re all human,” Diaz adds. “In a way it’s just a different perspective on male dance.”
The work is obviously striking a chord. Diaz and Campbell report receiving support after shows and through Facebook from others who have experienced bullying. They are also receiving notice for their intricate, viscerally expressive choreography: Dance Magazine named MADBOOTS one of 25 companies to watch in 2014.
The creative process seems to come easily to the duo, who have found an almost eerie synchronicity.
“Sometimes we’ll go to opposite ends of the room and make work, and kind of do a show-and-tell where we’re very honest with each other,” Campbell relates. “We both keep notebooks and often have the same thing written down—which is kind of scary!”
The pair, still in their mid-20s, realize it’s almost unheard-of for such a young company to have such a fast rise.
“This is a big moment for us,” Campbell agrees with a laugh. “It’s been fast! It’s been a wild ride. Looking back at it now, it seems like a crazy thing. I don’t think we had our heads wrapped around what we were doing. There’s still a lot we’re learning, having our own company. We love what we’re doing and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The Chutzpah Festival presents MADBOOTS Dance with Shay Kuebler Radical System Art at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre from Saturday to Monday (February 20 to 22).