Strike A Pose!

Even though Madonna was not on stage at the Long Center this weekend, her spirit was there in the new ballet Bubblegum, created by Stephen Mills.

Mills himself did not mention Madonna in his commentary after the performance, but to me and audience members beside me, the “Strike A Pose” line from her 1990 superhit Vogue caught the wave of excitement that Bubblegum generated.

While I have seen the blatantly gay take-off on ballet, Trockadero, Bubblegum was by the far THE gayest ‘serious professional’ ballet I have ever seen. Unlike the polite applause which greeted some portions of the other two performances staged by Ballet Austin, this one was greeted from the very first few seconds by catcalls and shout-outs from the audience. Gales of applause drenched the 8 male ballet dancers as they pranced their way through Bubblegum. After watching this, the taste of bubblegum will never be the same.

Mills said he adopted “a vaudeville kind of approach,” here. As in vaudeville, a century ago, a person would walk out on stage to introduce each new performer. Here, a dancer prances out in various provocative moves and introduces each movement, followed by a clash of cymbals. The scene in the lead photo shows the dancers in golden pants. Each time they clicked those pink fans, they would assume a different pose. With eight separate poses each time, the collective multitude of them was overwhelming and induced many in the audience into thoughts not normally experienced at the Long Center.

“During Covid, I became very nostalgic, and the only thing I could do was get on the trail and run. I would have my ear buds in and found myself going back to music of the 70s and early 80s. I was going back there because it was a happy time for me: I was living and dancing in New York. I was 19 and was having a blast in dirty New York City! In that time New York was a very dangerous to place to be if you were queer. In the staged places you could see pride, and exhibition of people showing themselves in the safest, most beautiful, authentic way possible. So that’s what I was reminded of.

“I got to the place where I was going to make a dance. This is my Covid dance, and that’s what I was thinking about when I did it!”

Turning to the Nazi-inspired political attacks on the LGBTQ community in Texas, Mills admitted “I can’t say that it’s unrelated to the recent SB 12 bill that our unfortunate people on the Hill have passed – imagining that drag is more dangerous than guns in schools – I just wanted to do something that was joyous and happy. We have a great community, and a great drag community here, so I just thought it would be fun.”

Fun it certainly was, and the video introduction shown on the big screen was delightfully suggestive. One person said “I thought it was going to be like Trocadero, but this has a lot more variety in it.” Bubblegum featured guest performer drag sensation Ritzy Bitz; Mills himself appeared on stage (see photo at conclusion of article).

A greater contrast with the opening dance by Balanchine could hardly be imagined. The sinuous lines of Concerto Barocco, performed to music of J.S. Bach, was worlds removed from Bubblegum. It was featured as part of the inaugural performance of the New York City Ballet in 1948. Michele Gifford, who began as a dancer while many of the Balanchine-selected dancers were still performing in the 1980s, was on hand here in Austin. For the ballet aficionados, her title is repetiteur.

While the coordination of the eight ballerinas was not always perfect, they were a fine accompaniment to the principal two ballerinas. The symmetry was beautifully classical, with the two in front and four on each side. They were joined by one male dancer, who danced in loops with four of the ballerinas. It was a truly beautiful performance of an iconic ballet.

The other performance at the Long Center in Austin was Renaissance by Amy Seiwert, who was on hand for a question period after the three ballet pieces were performed. It was quite a dramatic performance. I found the most spellbinding part was when one ballerina was supported by 5 male dancers. Her gradual ascent from floor to the shoulders of the uppermost guys was quite dramatic. The piece was loosely based on an event in India where women lined up for 300 miles. An audience-goer I spoke to was disappointed that it didn’t really portray this very well.

Seiwert commented on one notable section of her ballet. “Two women walking forward and the one is literally pulling five men behind her and the other one isn’t. To me it is nothing so literal: she is pulling the ‘system’ behind her, she’s not literally pulling men. Sometimes it’s meant as almost accusatory, but predominantly it’s just ‘I see this.’ It’s just an acknowledgement, it’s not meant to condemn.”

Whatever your interpretation, the performances (billed as TRIAD: Three Bold Dances) made for an extraordinary evening of ballet. Ballet Austin is certainly one of the most forward-thinking and electric ballet companies in the country.

Lead photo: courtesy of Ballet Austin

second photo: image from the YouTube video:

third photo: Stephen Mills, at left, plays one of the drag queens in Bubblegum

Photos by Anne Marie Bloodgood, courtesy of Ballet Austin.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.