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7 Jan 2009

Alternative families

Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein from San Francisco's RAWdance who are performing in Singapore as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival tells more about their performance Fallout, narrow-minded 'conservative' family values and politics.

I was surprised that Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein had heard of Fridae - after all, they're from San Francisco, California. But it turns out that Smith's actually been a member of the site since 2005, which says something good about our outreach.

Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein of San Francisco-based dance troupe RAWdance
The two of them have worked together for six years before founding their company, RAWdance in 2004. Since then they've created twelve new works for the company, including three full-length pieces, and won praise as a young company creating visceral, driven work that highlights the strength and vulnerability of the body.

In Singapore, they're premiering, a dance re-interpretation of the traditional family, which involves a suburban husband and wife athletically abusing each other on a set that includes white picket fences, oven mitts, and a steadily vanishing bottle of vodka.

And as if that wasn't reason enough to endorse the show, I found that they're terribly good interview subjects:

æ: Are you dancing in Fallout as well as serving as choreographers?

Ryan: Yes, we will both be performing, along with two other dancers Dudley Flores and Laura Sharp. Both have been with our company from the start.

æ: What inspired you to create it?

Wendy: Back in 2007, we were offered a 2-week crash course choreography residency at San Francisco's ODC Theater. We built a duet on ourselves, carving out a twisted co-dependent relationship, working with the idea of catching a glimpse of intimate moments that weren't meant to be public a look behind closed doors. That duet sparked Fallout.

Ryan: Both of us are actually extremely close to our biological families (hi mom!) but we moved across the country and have really learned the importance and strength of alternative families.

Ironically enough, our entire company (the four of us performing, as well as two others who are not joining for the trip), all come from very traditionally structured families. Despite the percentages, all of our parents are still happily married. That's not to say they don't have their issues all families do. The examination of intimate relationships is at the root of our company's mission. We've looked into romantic relationships, sexual relationships, etc. and looking at the ideals of family seemed like a logical step.

Wendy: The development of Fallout also became particularly relevant politically as the US entered an election year. Looking back to the 1950s, the family was touted as a place of security against a growing climate of fear. And now at a time when the US is waging war abroad and the fear of terrorism at home, speeches of family values sound more and more strikingly similar to 50s cultural propaganda. It's frightening to see just how quickly people buy into it. As if having the perfect house with husband, wife, two kids and a dog will protect you from whatever dangers are out there.

Ryan: This year was also challenging for the support of alternative families. November, although thrilling for Obama's election, was overshadowed by the many state elections that stripped gay adoption and marriage rights. As friends cheered watching Obama's victory speech, I couldn't keep myself from tearing up and feeling defeated. The passing of Proposition 8 here in CA squashed me. While the concept of Fallout came much earlier, we both can't imagine a more relevant time to be presenting a work that hopefully puts into question narrow-minded 'conservative' family values.

æ: The Fringe website says that the show's got "Some Mature Content". Want to elaborate?

Ryan: I have to giggle a little when I think of this piece as having "mature content". A couple of years ago, we did a piece that somewhat blurred the lines of dance, art, and porn and was performed in an empty art gallery. The end of the piece involved three Polaroid cameras and me dancing naked Fallout feels tame in comparison.

That said, it's a dark piece. Violent. Hopefully disturbingly thought-provoking. Wendy and I have a duet that pushes the line of mistreatment. Alcoholism and co-dependency are themes throughout. While there may not be nudity this time around, it's definitely not kid's play either.

Wendy: We jokingly refer to ourselves as the Will and Grace of the dance world. We work together and live together. I think most people are surprised that we act so much like an old married couple. We both live in the Castro and are entrenched in queer culture - Fallout definitely comes from a queer perspective. We have a lot of gender play and a passionate, if cold, duet between two men. In rehearsal we've imaged a number of non-linear narratives throughout the work, including a love-triangle with a businessman on the down-low.

Ryan: Yes, I get to be the other woman. Or is Dudley? Again, they're non-linear, so it's hard to keep track. As choreographers we have a couple of unofficial rules regarding gender equality. Neither of us is a fan of work where it's a woman's job to be pretty, and a man's job to show the woman off we refuse to play into that paradigm.

Fallout was a struggle for Wendy since it involved giving into prescribed gender roles to make a point; she didn't like that one bit. Even if we aren't exploring themes of sexuality and gender in a piece, it's important to us to always fight against the norm - women lift men, intimate duets are often same-sex, etc.

æ: How are you feeling about your first international performance?

Wendy: We are both excited and just a little terrified of this opportunity. Thankfully we're extremely busy as all the last minute performance and travel details start to pop up, so we don't have much time to stress. The Fringe Festival really is a milestone for our company.

Ryan: We were both in Singapore on the eve of the 2007 festival. I remember vainly joking that I wanted to be on the posters plastered around the Esplanade. (Really that's still a large motivating factor for our participation, I don't deny it.) We made a note to check out the website when we got home and a couple of years later, we're on our way. I'm looking forward to putting our work in a new context and finding connections to a broader arts community.

Wendy: Right now, I just have my fingers crossed that this goes better than our November tour to New York and DC. Five of the six of us performing got the stomach flu and we were performing in corsets. It wasn't pretty.

æ: Any interesting stories about the rehearsal process you'd like to share?

Wendy: As the piece has been in development, we've shown segments of the work here in San Francisco. After one performance this summer, an audience member came up deeply concerned. It was an intimate setting and she could see all my bruises from props, lifts gone awry, etc. She gave Ryan a threatening look and even asked if I was okay. Our duet has been rehearsed enough that it looks a lot more violent than it is.

Ryan: Without revealing too much, Wendy ends up a little wet in that same duet. And in one run, thanks to my overzealous nature, she ended up a little too wet. There's only so much you can do to maintain slippery grips. Thankfully I only dropped her once and we had someone claim that they loved that moment, as it felt very sincere.

Partnering can be dangerous. Dudley and I have a tendency to kick it up a notch in performance. We have a repertory duet that plays out a sexual power struggle, ending in a brief make-out session and me getting shoved to the floor. We mischievously like to 'keep it fresh' and make slight surprise changes for each other in every run. In our last time performing it, our efforts of surprises ended up with me getting punched in the face with about thirty seconds of very blurry vision. I hope Dudley doesn't get any creative ideas for our festival performances...

æ: And what're you doing after the show?

Ryan: I'm looking forward to the much-needed vacation we're taking after the festival. Vietnam here we come! I'll check out what advice and connections Fridae has to offer once I get a free minute.

Fallout by RAWdance plays from Jan 13-14, 8pm, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, tickets $27/$19. 10% discount for Fridae.com readers with password "We are family". Tickets are available from sistic.com.sg. Also check out their website, http://www.rawdance.org.


1. 2009-01-07 21:41  
Nice interview - Bon voyage have a great tour in singapore.
bob and debbie (nantucket, ma)
2. 2009-01-08 09:31  
Absolutely AWE-Mazing!!! You're both a huge inspiration to me! Thanks for dreaming out-loud!

- N



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