a quintessence of dust
on love in good lighting
The first pages of a book, which chronicles my seventeen-year-old father’s reckoning with his faith and the world around him, contain a line that struck me. “We find security in falling back to what is past when we are faced with the insecurity of what is to come. I cannot dispute it, but there is much left out.”
These lines, especially the part about much being left out, are the tip of a thought-iceberg in whose glacial caves I dive today. Much of my current research and artistic practice engages the traditions, rituals, and paradigms of old-school belief systems, like Christianity and ballet, in search of the baby in the bathwater (in hopes that it doesn’t get thrown out.) The premise, fictional or not, is that there is a crisis of faith in dance playing out. I’m refining a critique of secularism, and speculating on ways God is compatible with a queer politic.
Part of this work involves grappling with my Christian heritage, from the violence of that institution and its legacy to the magic I learned there. But I wonder if one reason I’m on this mission, of separating the baby from the bathwater, comes from a desire to make a relevant and palatable arrangement out of the tangle of this violent history. Am searching for a kind of redemption? I feel comfort when I place myself in relationship to my past; it gives me a sense of belonging that I cannot dispute. But the volume of what has been omitted over the years troubles the safety of the first part. The “much left out” calls the comfort into question. Safety, at the expense of what? At whose expense?
It is comforting to read that fifty years ago, my father was looking for what is left out. The old clog-wearing boomer he is today disguises the teenager he once was, who was coming of age in a time when norms about race, gender, and sexuality were cracking and crumbling. He described how halfway through his time at an all-boys high school, they started talking about love and masculinity, and how it was okay to cry. They would dance together, hugging and holding each other to the tune of Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Right now I am in Staunton, Virginia and last night my nuclear family and I went to see “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] (again)”, which is a satirical play for three actors in which all of Shakespeare’s plays get smashed together. We laughed so much in the audience. The cast performed with candor, charisma, and the kind of professionalism that comes from doing a show night after night in a small-town theater. There was no room for critique or doubt, like we all expected a show, and the actors performed one. The contract between us was straightforward.
The play questioned the relevance of the Shakespearean canon, and dug for depth in places that the original script skated over, like Ophelia’s character in Hamlet. One character is posing at a Shakespeare scholar, and when it is revealed that she’s a quack, she moans in disappointment, saying she thought studying this playwright would be all babes and limousines, but actually it’s a terribly boring world of folios and quartos. They play American Football with the English crown as the ball, with commentary narrating the passes and tackles up and down the yard lines. The players are the titular characters of Shakespeare’s historical plays, the Richards and Henrys, the Edwards, Lear of course, and John.
One of the actors made a joke about performance art being pretentious and I was the only one to laugh. They also made a joke about provincial theater, but I forget the gag. Most of the jokes hinged on a loving irreverence toward the work. One joke, in the second act all about Hamlet, necessitated a classically Shakespearean delivery of a monologue. The actor slid into it as if by accident, and in mere seconds the room fell to silence, rocked as we were by the cadence of the language, and how the images unfold like petals falling from a rose, each layer slowly unpeeling, each next word a surprise. Was it the actor who held us captive of their every breath? Was it the text? Or the centuries that bound the two together?
The words struck me in the moment, then vanished. None of us could recall a single word from it the next day, except “dust.” Here is the monologue:
“I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
Hamlet is growing disenchanted with the whole project – this world, its people. He describes how empty it all looks. The magic is gone. He sees the signs that indicate greatness but they are empty to him now. He knows, intellectually, that the human mind and body are worth delighting in, but to him they are nothing, just dust. I don’t know enough about Hamlet to know if he is having a crisis of faith in this moment, or if this bleak outlook is from the trauma and grief of losing his father. I’ve heard that he is a bit of a whiny bitch, also.
Hamlet is a prince. A lot of my friends are artists, and sometimes I see them go through phases of disillusionment, disenchantment, and heavy disposition towards their line of work. When this happens, I become eager to preserve their motivation. I want them to never forget how much they love dance. My instinct is to fix the sadness and disappointment by insisting on how lucky we are to be in this field, even though it is very hard.
Alas, my instincts are misplaced for they assume that sadness is a problem, or that a crisis has a solution. I am trying to not be solution-oriented these days. Some things are not relevant, will never be palatable, are irresolvable, and have grown beyond redemption. To fall out of enchantment is to open our eyes and see the world without the filter of the spell you’ve been under. What can I see that I couldn’t see before? What was left out of the picture? Disillusionment doesn’t mean that everything is now a “pestilent congregation of vapors.” It’s about seeing “what a piece of work is a man” without a filter - and it isn’t pretty! It’s confronting. Parts of me were left out of the picture, too. The safety and comfort of the known make it easy to love, but loving without a filter is more brave.
Thank you so much for your engagement last month. It was beautiful to hear from so many of you! Sharing this with others or hitting reply and letting me know how you feel about 5, 6, 7, 8 is always appreciated.
Coming up, I am dancing on the beach in Ostend at the DANSAND! festival in Belgium, for Nikima Jagudajev. I’ll be starting dramaturgical work with Melanie Jame Wolf soon, on a show coming up in the fall. You can expect to see the lesbian community service known as Coyote Pretty Ugly rear its head at various pride events in Berlin in July.