‘Women’s Work’: New Role Models

It sure is a man’s world--when it comes to performance art in Los Angeles. Even at Highways, where that venue’s first year has been dominated by male performers--until now.

“Women’s Work,” a festival of dance and performance, opens tonight and runs through June 18.

Festival organizers say that the event is not a deliberate attempt to counter Highways’ first year of mostly male programming, but the festival could help re-establish Los Angeles as a center for feminist art--a distinction held by the city’s art community a decade ago.


Maria Fiorentino of Argentina, whose appearances are also part of Festival Latino LA, opens “Women’s Work” with “Piedras y Huevos” (“Stones and Eggs”), tonight through Sunday. The festival features solo works over the next four weeks, including choreographers Nina Wise of San Francisco and Suchi Branfman of New York, and performers Linda Carmella Sibio and Meri Nana-Ama Danquah of Los Angeles.

It is, admits Highways co-director Linda Frye Burnham, a change. “It just happened that we had a lot of gay male work in quick succession,” she says of the venue’s programming.

“It happened because Tim (Miller, Highways co-director with Burnham) is an activist in that community and he’s aware of what’s being done.”

Not only are there “a lot of gay male performance artists in L.A.” says Burnham, but “you get the richest programming out of the population that’s doing the work.”

Says Danquah, a poet-dancer born in Ghana, “I think we’re watching history. It’s not just men, it’s gay men and it’s their time. It doesn’t boil down to a battle of the sexes: they’re fighting for their lives.”

Yet Sibio is disgruntled. “There are a lot of women artists, but they’re expected to work three times as hard before they get any attention,” she says.

“The art world is still totally dominated by men,” Sibio continues. “A lot of focus is being given to minority artists, but in the art world, women are still minorities and that’s been overlooked.”

While “Women’s Work” is not, according to Burnham, intended to make up for that imbalance, she acknowledges that she and Miller “instinctively wanted to look elsewhere for a while.”

That is easier said than done, though. “We’re most interested in local work,” says Burnham. “But we’re just not getting approached by that many women.”

Which is a particularly odd state of affairs, given that Los Angeles was the center of feminist art in the late ‘70s--a development that drew Burnham here in 1976.

“I was a housewife in Orange County,” she confesses. “I came to the art world because of feminist performance art.

“There was this huge burst of (feminist) work going on and the Women’s Building was being established.”

It was eye-opening for Burnham, who went on to found High Performance magazine. “The reason that all this seemed important was that I was discovering who I was and this work was addressing that directly,” she says.

Unfortunately though, that level of activity lasted only a short while. “I don’t know what happened to feminism,” says Burnham. “The performance artists went through this horrible, wrenching change in the early ‘80s where suddenly the spotlight discovered performance art and people threw themselves into projects that were way too big.”

“The press didn’t understand what they were doing and the artists ended up going way into debt,” Burnham recalls. “The whole experience seemed to be pretty damaging and a lot of those women lost interest in performance.”

The list of ex-L.A. performers reads like a Who’s Who of feminist art. “Terry Wolverton was the director of the Women’s Building and now she calls herself a ‘recovering performance artist.’ Cheri Gaulke and Nancy Buchanan have turned to video.

“Suzanne Lacy had to leave town to seek better funding for her large-scale work. Leslie Labowitz had been literally in the street fighting sexism and violence and she got completely burned out on activist work and became a sprout farmer.”

Partly because of these losses, Burnham feels things may never be the same. “When the scene fragments with everybody leaving town, it robs the community of energy,” she says.

“There was a point in the ‘70s where young women were dropping everything and coming to L.A. to study feminist work. Those women that came here then are still around, but the younger women aren’t coming.”

The young men, however, are having a field day. “People who came to Highways as volunteers when we first opened a year ago are now starting to write their first performance pieces--because of the examples they have,” says Burnham.

“People like Tim (Miller), John Goss, John Fleck, Alan Pulner are role models. You have role models and a scene develops. In New York you have the WOW Cafe, Holly Hughes and Split Britches. But we just don’t have any strong feminist role models here right now. All the feminists I know are really tired.”