Discovering The Undiscovered Dance
By Justin Ocean
'I'm an elder of the transgender community, and Sean Dorsey is my pride and joy. His sensitivity to the pain that comes with transformation is as compassionate as any Zen master's. His deadpan comic timing, his skill at seduction, his charm and boyish sexiness all make us -- his audience -- love him all the more.' -- Kate Bornstein
When one of transgender activism's most lauded artists and theorists gives that kind of kudos, it's time to take note -- especially when the medium of his art is dance, a form more likely to cause eyes to glaze over than minds to expand. But Sean Dorsey is here to change all that. As founder and artistic Director of San Francisco's Fresh Meat Productions, the nation's first nonprofit dedicated to creating, presenting and touring year-round transgender art programs, he's been bringing the trans and queer experience to the masses in a vibrant, accessible way since 2001, racking up accolades in the process. At 36, the Vancouver native has received two Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, the Bay Area's top dance honor, and was recently named 'Best Dance/Performance Company' by SF Weekly. (Having seen his work in person, this often skeptical writer agrees.)
Out caught up with Dorsey last week as he prepares to bring his latest critically acclaimed work Uncovered: The Diary Project to New York City, with special guest Kate Bornstein, as part of Dixon's Place HOT! Festival of queer performance art. Dates in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Berlin are also in the works. We chatted about trans 'Origin Myths', his unique creative process, and why talk of junk is better left in the trunk.
Out: Lately trans issues have hit the mainstream, what with Oregon mayors and MTV Real Worlders. As a trans man, have you seen it make a positive impact, or has it just made it more pop and trendy?
Sean Dorsey: Oh, MTV'people love to sensationalize, don't they? But isn't that always how marginalized folks make it into mainstream consciousness? First we're ignored, then we're sensationalized, then we get a certain level of acceptance, then they try to co-opt us. But it's exciting that people are finally starting to realize that there are trans guys, too, and people outside the male-female binary. I look forward to when less sensationalized transpeople enter public consciousness -- the activists, the artists, the thinkers.
Is that a goal of your latest project, to bring forward those activists and thinkers?
In my work, I strive to articulate that which is most human and visceral and honest about us. Uncovered: The Diary Project took me deep into a year-and-a-half research process where I read the diaries and personal writings of transgender and queer people, taking actual text and transforming it into very accessible, colorful dance theater.
Given that your body is your main tool as a dancer, would you say being trans makes it easier or more difficult to be a dance artist?
I think it is both a blessing and a huge challenge. Our body is our instrument and even post-post-post-modern dance theater, if we want to be honest about it, is completely, traditionally gendered. But on the other hand, there's something really magical about being in your body and your skin in a really honest and full way and being able to share something physically using your body.
When did you start to transition?
My partner Shawna talks a lot about the idea of an 'Origin Myth' -- that there was this particular instance or place where it all started, like when I was seven, I was a boy. Although there are those markers like when we got it internally, or when we told our families, or when there's hormones or surgery, but I really think more significant than those markers, is the gradual organic journey. It's taken my whole life to get to where I am today. Some of those seeds are in childhood and some of those seeds are as an 18-year-old or 21-year-old, but my journey as a trans person really centered a lot on moving to the Bay Area. There's so much space and support and affirmation and celebration and innovation in transgender culture and activist movements that there was a really exciting shift in my own journey. San Francisco provided a community and an artistic home which allowed me to be my full self and create the art I dreamed of.