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Rashaad Newsome Is Having a Ball

by Ryan Wong on March 11, 2014

Rashaad Newsome, "FIVE (The Drawing Center)" (2014) (all photos by Jessica Katz) (all images courtesy The Drawing Center)

Rashaad Newsome, “FIVE (The Drawing Center)” (2014) (all photos by Jessica Katz) (all images courtesy The Drawing Center)

Five passages on Rashaad Newsome’s “FIVE (The Drawing Center).”

I

Two women in burlesque outfits are carrying bottles of vodka and sparklers to Rashaad Newsome’s table. They will come around again several times with more bottles, parading to the flashes of camera phones all around. Newsome has rented out The Box, a club with baroque décor in the Lower East Side, to celebrate a performance he staged at The Drawing Center earlier in the evening.

Onstage, in front of a velvet curtain, a dozen young, beautiful dancers vogue to a driving set from DJ MikeQ.

II

Rashaad Newsome, “FIVE (The Drawing Center)” (2014) (click to enlarge)

“FIVE (The Drawing Center)” unfolds in three acts. An unseen emcee introduces the “legendary” opera singer Stefanos Koroneos. He offers a slow, haunting background melody for a group of dancers clad in black. They sashay onto the stage in succession, dancing solo at first, then in duos and trios, using the full arsenal of dips, locks, and hand gestures of vogue.

In a second passage, dancers come on one by one for solo performances. Each has hair dyed to match their colored lipstick: blue, yellow, green, purple, red. A camera controlled by Newsome captures their movements, translating them into frenetic lines projected on the wall behind them.

In the third act, Kevin Jz Prodigy, the vogue commentator, joins the full ensemble of dancers onstage, delivering a rapid-fire vocal beat. At one point, the dancers encircle him, squatting and standing and gesturing in unison. During the curtain call, Newsome joins them onstage and throws himself into the mix.

III

The crowd at The Drawing Center — in some areas 10 people deep — makes it hard to see the some of the dancing, especially the dips. Overheard after the performance: “I hate that I have to stand behind white people to watch some voguing.”

IV

Vogue and balls have been evolving for some 50 years. Thirty years before Madonna lifted the forms, and before Paris Is Burning brought a larger crowd into the circuit, queer black and Latino men in Harlem were doing performance and presentation for each other.

Newsome is doing for vogue what Ellington did for jazz — stylizing it, adapting it to a language of the art world, making it legible to a wide audience. Performance becomes performance art. Like jazz and hip-hop, the form of vogue was developed by and for working-class people of color. For better and for worse in America, no exciting art form stays there for long. Voguing is also inseparable from queer and trans culture — a space to pass in or riff on or trouble gender.

Rashaad Newsome, "FIVE (The Drawing Center)" (2014) (all photos by Jessica Katz) (all images courtesy The Drawing Center)

Rashaad Newsome, “FIVE (The Drawing Center)” (2014)

If, in Newsome’s hands, voguing loses some of the raw energy that comes with the battles and connoisseurship of balls, it gains slickness, choreography, and visual harmony. Vogue becomes the framework for a lavish visual experience, driven not by the dialogues between dancers and the emcee, as they are in traditional balls, but by Newsome’s vision. He dresses his dancers in matching Y-3. The dance ‘battles’ are staged, timed with the music. The brightly lit space of The Drawing Center aestheticized the dancers’ facial and body motions, the live musical accompaniment, the projected images.

V

Throughout the afterparty at The Box, people come up one by one to take photos with Newsome. He sits on an ornate couch, smiling with his fans. The couch faces the stage, where the dancers from the earlier performance give impromptu solos, each trying to outdo the other — to get a read going, to catch Newsome’s eye. It is performance in the round.

The dancers drift into the seated booths, and some partiers get up on stage. The feeling is messier and freer than the white cube, but the looks and movements and interactions of everyone, as in the performance three hours before, still follow Newsome’s baton.

Rashaad Newsome’s “FIVE (The Drawing Center)” took place on March 6, 6:30pm, at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan).

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