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How working with a group of all-male dancers impacted a female choreographer
"As a queer feminist I thought, why would I want to work with all men?" admits choreographer Vanessa Anspaugh when discussing her latest piece The End of Men, Again, running at Danspace Project May 25 to 27. "The idea was really wild and sort of uncomfortable to me. It felt problematic, but also risqué and interesting. It brought up a lot of questions for me."
This iteration of The End of Men, Again is an expansion of a work Anspaugh created last year when she was a brand-new mom. Explosive, dangerous movement sequences are juxtaposed with moments of gentle support and evocations of religious fervor. Collaborating with a cast of six male dancers raised issues of power, upended expectations, and proved especially resonant for Anspaugh as mother to Ocean, her now-14-month-old son. "I thought: what is the legacy of males that he will be stepping into at this moment?" she says. "What does it mean?"
In the past, Anspaugh had worked with all-female ensembles and also made pieces for mixed-gender groups. But she notes that "male choreographers have made dances with all women, but when do you see a woman making an all-male piece? That felt like an interesting situation to investigate." Although she expected there to be "some intense dynamic -- for them to be challenging me in some way," that didn't turn out to be the case. "This group of men was so warm and tender and curious -- wanting to explore their own vulnerabilities, to talk about power and the abuse of power, and being accountable," she says. "They're really serious feminist men who were very open. I wasn't meeting the sense of opposition that I was prepared for. It was like setting out with a hypothesis that didn't get proven."
As Anspaugh revised The End of Men, Again for the Danspace run, she was acutely aware of everything that has transpired politically over the past 12 months, and how that has impacted the country and its citizens. "I don't want to stay away from that at all," she says while admitting that "I don't know how it's going to appear in this version, but I feel it's going to show up. A year has passed, these bodies are different bodies, and what we're caring about, what we're seeing as an audience, is different. It's certainly not avoiding politics; it's inviting the politics into the room."
Anspaugh finds that the artists she chooses for each project play a major part in the resulting piece. "Casting is always a really important starting point for me," she says. "Whoever is performing in my work often dictates what the work becomes. I really tune into the people and what their concerns are, how their concerns meet mine, and what the collective of the cast brings to each other."
That said, working with her all-male ensemble (Massimiliano Balduzzi, Lacina Coulibaly, Tristan Koepke, Gilbert Reyes, Simon Thomas-Train, and Connor Voss) noticeably affected Anspaugh's creative process. "I think there's a lot less of my own body-generated choreography in this than in any piece I made before," she says. "A lot more of the movement material was generated by the dancers through improvisations, and then working and crafting that. There's a lot that's left to the performer in terms of how things are executed. They have a lot of agency inside of the material."
There is one male participant from last year's incarnation, which was subtitled An Ode to Ocean, who isn't returning this year: Anspaugh's son. Although he made a brief appearance last time he won't be giving a repeat performance at Danspace because "it's now his bedtime."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top images: The End of Men, Again in 2016. Photos by Ian Douglas.