Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How 10 Hairy Legs breaks gender stereotypes in dance
Randy James, the founding artistic director of 10 Hairy Legs (10HL), was watching his dancers run through their Baryshnikov Arts Center program, which runs June 7 to 10. His stance was wide and commanding but his face was alight as he observed the swirl of movement. A smile flashed across his face every few minutes.
He has cause to be proud. The all-male troupe has amassed an impressive repertoire since it was founded six years ago. This week's lineup includes two world premieres, and everything is performed to live music. The dancers display an immense range, easily switching between classical shapes and post-modern moves, mature expression and humorous play. That last bit isn't surprising given the company's tongue-in-cheek name, which alludes to their sex.
Considering the current political climate, the idea of more space dedicated to men might provoke some to scoff. But James notes that 10HL actually dispels gender stereotypes in dance. "Someone might say, 'Do we need another white gay guy starting a company?' And I absolutely get that," he admits. "But that's not us. I'm focused on shifting a paradigm. Often women dance and men lift, but in 10HL, the men dance, lift each other and get lifted. They have to figure out all of it. Everyone pushes each other forward. I started the company because I had these exceptional men as my students at Mason Gross School of the Arts. I had a company for 15 years with both men and women beforehand, and I had no intention of creating another one. But the universe brought me these beasts, these gladiators, and I wanted to help build a different type of male dancer. These men are respectful of each other and everyone else. I want them to be positive role models."
This week's lineup includes Al Blackstone's theatre-dance piece Brian, which fuses slapstick comedy and tender nostalgia in a high-school setting; an excerpt from Christopher Williams' The Portuguese Suite featuring two-dimensional shapes mixed with scooping lifts, pencil turns and deep contractions; Raja Feather Kelly's Andy Warhol's Bleu Movie and two world premieres: Yin Yue's So It Goes and Nicholas Sciscione's 172, the first piece choreographed and performed by a company member.
When programming, James emphasizes variety, from the type of work, to the tone, to the background of the choreographer. Mixing and matching new and old repertoire keeps the dancers on their toes and helps them grow. "Raja and Al's pieces were both commissioned last year," James says. "If the team can rehearse the work, take a break from it and then come back to it, it sticks in their body in a deeper way. They have a ton of active rep alive in their bodies, from 12 to 15 pieces at any one time, so being able to switch is a skill they sharpen."
Just like James took a gamble by creating an all-male company (though there are a few others such as Bad Boys of Dance and the comedic drag troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), he likes to take chances on emerging choreographers, which is another way he helps push his dancers forward. "Al's piece was a risk for us, not only because he's newer, but because it's very different from any work we've done before," he says about Brian, which requires switching from arabesque turns and Astaire-like footwork to readable gestures and emotional interactions. "We had to find out: Can the dancers do the acting? Can they hit all of the various notes?"
Meanwhile, James knew Yue for three years before he felt she was ready to create a work for 10HL. "Her voice has been getting stronger and stronger, and that's a key component," he says. "I'm interested in people who really love to choreograph -- who must choreograph -- in the same way I'm interested in dancers who must dance. Since we're moving higher in that level of accomplishment, I want that of the choreographers, too."
Since every 10HL season includes two commissions, that constant introduction to fresh material means the troupe is always evolving. "All dancers get better by dancing -- a lot -- and by doing new things," James says. "That's what I want to provide for my company members. They want to do the work. They want to be in a repertoire company. And, maybe most importantly, they want to stand as role models of a new type of male dancer."
Lauren Phoenix Kay regularly contributes to TDF Stages.
Top image: 10 Hairy Legs in Andy Warhol's Bleu Movie. Photos by Rachel Neville.
TDF MEMBERS: Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.