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  • The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and Their Afterlives by Selby Wynn Schwartz
  • Alison Bory
THE BODIES OF OTHERS: DRAG DANCES AND THEIR AFTERLIVES. By Selby Wynn Schwartz. Triangulations series. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019; pp. 300.

In The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and Their Afterlives, Selby Wynn Schwartz examines a group of performances that she identifies as “drag dances”— dances that ask their audiences to rethink notions of identity in its most essential terms. Deftly moving beyond drag as parody and performance as representation, Schwartz argues that drag dances not only challenge hegemonic constructions of gender and sexuality, but also contest conceptions of cultural inheritance, enrich understandings of embodied archiving, and generate possibilities for ghostly inhabiting. Investigating drag dances and the bodies that have performed them over the last forty years, Schwartz tracks shifting ideas of how drag might operate to ultimately propose “how we might reimagine embodiment ourselves” (13).

Chapter 1 begins by rehearsing what is probably the most familiar framing of the dance’s challenge to gender: its ability to call attention to the actions and qualities that so often gender bodies. Offering Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas as just such a dance, Schwartz closely analyzes the relationship between the choreographic actions and the libretto, outlining both the gendered signs and codes employed in the dance’s vocabulary and the challenges to gender its staging proposes. Beyond this assessment of its choreography, Schwartz also examines Morris’s changing approach to casting the work, considering the variety of bodies (and their prescribed genders) that have filled the central roles since its premiere in 1989. In these casting shifts, which have moved “drag” roles to female-identifying bodies, she suggests that the work has changed from a declaration of gay visibility to a proposal for gender inclusivity. Rather than play with gender norms through cross-gender casting of the lead roles, she suggests that more recent performances have celebrated the possibilities of the dancing groups, emphasizing the collective, democratic representations offered in the staging of the chorus. This move, she proposes, nods toward the possibility of queer utopic future, one that begins to imagine a broader repertoire for all performers.

In chapter 2, Schwartz positions Richard Move’s drag performance of Martha Graham as an unlikely queer inheritor of her legacy. Emerging while Graham’s repertory was being legally contested and her dances were not able to be publicly performed by the company that has her name, Move’s drag embodiment became the vessel for her memory and a repository for her choreography. Instead of focusing on recreating her dances, however, Move’s drag performance, Schwartz argues, offers comfort to her larger-than-life persona, bringing resolution to the lingering sorrow of her later years. Basing his drag embodiment on what Graham resentfully referred to as her “second body,” the body that could no longer dance, Move brings her body into motion again. Approaching his manifestation with spiritual reverence, [End Page 596] his enactment of her being is “a cross between an oracle-once-removed, a medium in a séance, and a hostess of lost histories” (90). For Schwartz, this positioning unearths some of the radical potency of drag dance, creating sites for improbable spiritual kinship and a generous willingness to be inhabited by our artistic predecessors.

Chapter 3 further explores the opportunities for artistic haunting and new embodiments that are instigated by drag dances. Reflecting on Butoh artist Kazuo Ohno’s Admiring La Argentina, Schwartz illuminates the potential of “admiring,” which, for her, is not about mimicry, but about creating sacred allegiance. In his performance, Ohno materialized memories of La Argentina, with his costuming serving as a conduit for the “coexistence of corporeal histories” and his dancing revealing the multitude of spirits that exist within moving bodies (104). Examining the reverberations of Ohno’s admiring in the work of Takao Kawaguchi and Trajal Harrell, Schwartz illustrates the power of these performance returns, illuminating the multiplicity and mobility uncovered by the mystical presences embedded in drag dances.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the dance company that is probably most immediately conjured by “drag dance,” is the subject of chapter 4. Chronicling...


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