How does pole dance become political?
In “State of,” a work by performance art duo Gerard & Kelly, subway pole dance innovator Forty Smooth performs his acrobatic, gravity-defying moves to Whitney Houston’s 1991 rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” while dressed in a deconstructed version of the American flag.
The self-taught Forty Smooth performs alongside classically trained dancer and vocalist Quenton Stuckey and one-half of Gerard & Kelly, the choreographer Ryan Kelly. Dancing on and off the pole, the trio of dancers attempt to interrogate national symbols and whom they represent.
On Saturday, “State of” will make its U.S. premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary warehouse space in Little Tokyo. The event is among screenings, performances and parties surrounding the Frieze Los Angeles art fair.
Gerard & Kelly, who choreographed Solange’s performance art piece “Bridge-s” last year, are known for their minimalist movement, incorporating queer theory and critique of institutions.
They began studying queer and feminist responses to pole dance in 2014 during a residency at New York’s New Museum. There, they met Forty Smooth and other subway pole dancers who use transit architecture to show off gymnastic-style stunts. They also worked with pole dance instructor Roz “The Diva” Mays to learn the intricacies of the choreography.
One specific move called “the flag,” where a body hovers horizontally against a vertical pole, prompted further questions that eventually informed “State of” — “the idea of the flag, which led into the idea of nation and what does the flag represent and who does it represent,” Gerard said.
In 2017, Gerard and Kelly presented the first version of “State of” in Paris’ Palais de la Découverte museum. “We were trying to think about questions of migration and globalism at that point in the project,” Kelly said.
But they found the scope too large and spent two years honing the work, deciding instead to investigate “this question of American identity,” Kelly said, “and how that experience of being American is impacted by the different ways that we are gendered, our race, our experience with class and sexuality.”
“State of” weaves together several uses of the American flag, the pole and recorded and live versions of the national anthem, incorporating moments of virtuosic dance and moments of stillness.
A meditation on the dancers’ different backgrounds and relationships to dance, “the piece was an opportunity to see what it means to live in a society with such radical differences,” Kelly said.
The work also questions the rise of nationalism, in the U.S. and abroad, Gerard said. Nationalism can be “united around these very old and very violent symbols, like a flag or an anthem. We’re really interrogating that force we see rising by dismantling it, by deconstructing those symbols, by tearing them apart, and also by putting them back together.”
When: 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday