An Kaler – Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy

(An aside: Having managed to evade seeing dance for the most part last year, I thought I should take advantage of supernaut to procure seats at various performances around Berlin or wherever I happen to be, mainly because if I a) have free tickets and b) have to get along and write something here after, I’m more likely to actually progress from thinking about seeing to finding myself in the queue at the door. This week is Tanztage, and I shall be seeing a few pieces and writing what decidedly are not reviews. Despite that they appear in the category of the same name.)

The cowboy lies asleep as cowboys do, legs out, boots crossed, hat tipped down to chin, pushed up to reclining by the saddle on which he leans. Bales of hay line half the front, a low white wall behind. wind blows through the fields of wheat stalks projected over this, mournful, vast and lonely. I think I hear cattle lowing in the distance. If I could see his face, there would be stubble lining his chin. The dim light makes his white shirt look as though there is the curve of a breast. His shadow, a dark, timeless silhouette lines large the wall behind.

For a long time nothing happens.

He rises. Into the saddle, face occluded by the brim of his hat, boots into stirrups, a slow-motion bronco ride, circling the saddle, one arm flung behind, the other hanging onto the pommel, arms swapping as he is thrown wildly.

Is this imagination? Who is this cowboy and what is she doing riding this saddle? Is this real, perhaps, and I should assume an equine presence beneath, with all the associated visceral components, hooves, teeth, mane, shit and smell? Perhaps it is a wish?

The cowboy removes chaps, white shirt, hat. A tall, lanky, androgynous, bow-legged cowboy with a mop of short hair, the crotch cut of his jeans make him look like he’s packing. He saunters off upstage.

For a while, I’m not sure what I’m watching. Far too much going on to be Viennese conceptual (un-)dance, and far too little at the same time. I decide then, or it becomes obvious, I am in a gallery and this is performance art. Or, as Ivo was saying of Paris, it is something in a museum, to look at, but she can’t be too close to her performance. There is some distance as well, that is perhaps self-consciousness, an awareness of what is being done, and that while becoming cowboy, the moment of arrival is endlessly deferred. So it is an installation, or performance art, in a theatre, in a dance festival.

Of the three performances I saw on Friday night, intellectually this one gave the most to think about, conceptually also, in the staging and progression, even though as my friend said, it was obvious what would come next. But taking on gender or identity politics in performance for me is like blood to a vampire, and so I think about chewing some meat.

An describes the saddle as “prosthesis and connector, contrasting, blending and overlapping the organic and inorganic”, much in the same way a strap-on functions. It becomes physically real through imagination, or perhaps completion. A cowboy is not complete without his saddle, and neither is a drag king without his cock.

The question though of a cowboy as a choice of subject matter, especially within the context of queer drag is a loaded one. Parenthetically, which “quasi-archetypal, white, male heterosexual hero” cowboy are we regarding here? John Wayne is an obvious choice, though we would find ourselves in two different discussions if An’s cowboy was Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, (I’m hoping he is Franco Nero in Django).

Am I to look at this exposition of frivolous masculinity in the same way that drag going the other way was regarded by a certain polemical and less than sympathetic strand of feminism? Or, rather to say, what is the fascination with such extreme forms of gender representation coming both from the (non-drag) gay scene and its romance with ‘straight-acting’, and the dyke scene with a swathe of heteronormative drag-kinging? If the performance was, say, of Marisol from A Fistful of Dollars, embodying the opposite role within the milieu of cowboys and westerns, what would it take to not be seen as frivolous femininity?

An becomes horse, panting and snorting, jumping, trying to throw off an invisible rider. A silent video of rodeo riding behind, while cowboy at sunset leans on the white fence. An is to my uncultured ear a pointedly androgynous name. Not quite Anne or maybe the first third only of Anthony. If An is female, what are the limits of remaining so when venturing to this realm of hyper-masculinised identity in the guise of a man? And if An is male, does that make this still drag, or a longing for something he’s not?

I was thinking about Julia Serrano in Whipping Girl during some of the performance. in particular where she writes upon the status of femininity in the queer scene. My dissatisfaction with Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy stems largely from this, that while the critical attention has been paid to hetero masculine archetypes and roles, the location of An within a culture that tends towards expressions or explorations of such roles under the broad and elusive label of queer did not offer a corresponding analysis of that culture’s very tendencies in this direction. Of course it is also possible An made a performance about longing to be a cowboy.