Dancer and choreographer Brian Gerke on Emotional
Brian Gerke joined the Iceland Dance Company in 2012, having been teaching at Listdansskóli Íslands since 2007. Just two years later, his first solo piece of choreography has premiered as one half of a show called ‘Emotional’. It is a double-feature show comprised of Brian’s performance, ‘Meadow’, accompanied by ‘EMO1994’, a piece by Norwegian choreographer Ole Martin Meland. Sitting in the small cafeteria behind the scenes at Borgarleikhúsið, Brian walked me along the long road he took in choreographing ‘Meadow’ and dancing in ‘EMO1994’.
“Generally, I just love dance,” he begins. “I mean dancey dance, like kicking, turning, spinning, physical, sweaty, virtuosic dance. So I wanted to make a piece that I would want to be in and that showed what these dancers could do.”
But it wasn’t easy at first. “When I joined the company, I had an identity crisis because everyone else was so talented and original—I saw everything they could do that I couldn’t,” he says. “It took a full year of me breaking down and trying to quit before I realized: I too am unique. I shouldn’t try to be them, I should let them be them and let me be me.”
“Which is where I came up with this: we’re like X-Men,” he exclaims. Here, we both lean in excitedly, Americans geeking out a little about comics. “We have Storm and Wolverine and Nightcrawler and Shadowcat and all of that. But no one has all the powers. Each is different. So I thought it’s so strange to practice ballet every day, trying to be the same, when really, the majestic part of ourselves is our uniqueness.”
This was the birth of the piece’s working title: ‘Imperfect Instrument’. “None of us are perfect and we are instruments when we’re tools for choreography,” he explains, adding that he doesn’t believe imperfection to have a negative connotation. “It just means ‘unique.’”
Finding the meadow
So he started small. “I wanted to make an abstract dance for these amazing performers. If it was all about the movement, I didn’t want to do tricks or rely on coolness. I wanted to do something simple, maybe a bit naïve.”
He was visiting his hometown of Missoula, Montana when the work really became ‘Meadow’. “Walking through a super dense forest, you can turn and suddenly come upon a lake or a meadow. I know it’s such a hippie-dippy word, but that sensation is just ‘magical,’ like a freaking Disney film. Like Alice in Wonderland and all the weird animals that live there.”
So he had stumbled into a setting, but who he found there was still a mystery. “I was working with ‘Imperfect Instrument’ and ‘Meadow’ ,” he says. “I wasn’t sure yet if they were X-Men, or mythological creatures that don’t exist, or what. But I had the inspiration for the movement: the creature, the animal, the superhero. From there, it started to roll.”
That explains the intended subject, but he discovered another along the way. Both dances challenge, as he says, “one topic of heteronormative dance.” That is, gender. “And in the most obvious ways,” he explains. “The men are wearing makeup and I’ve asked them to shave—I was going for androgynous.”
So was Ole. Brian describes his dance solo in ‘EMO1994’: “To use Ole’s word, there’s something ‘queer’ about my solo at the end. I’m hooded in this puffy thing that deforms my body but so are the girls. I’m wearing red lipstick and my midriff is bare, but the movement isn’t feminine.” He pauses here, adding, “At least it doesn’t read that way because it’s also quite violent.”
The legs show
It’s not just the costumes that work with androgyny, but the choreography as well. He feels that traditional gender roles, “even in contemporary narrative dance, are a waste of talent.” Female dancers have too much skill to be treated only like small, delicate beings to be flung about, while male dancers simply “lift and gesture, lift and gesture. We were not doing that. The only lifts in the entire show are a woman lifting a woman,” he points out.
“We often joked that this was ‘The Legs Show’ because both pieces have lots of legs,” he admits with a laugh. “Even the concept of legs, like ‘gams,’ is feminized. But there is power in them also, with women, and the men move just as subtly. Not all things are just one thing, or even two things.” This concept runs palpably through the entirety of ‘Emotional’.
“I would love to continue working in that way,” he says, concluding, “I think it’s just much more interesting to see that.”
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