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LOS ANGELES — A woman sings the National Anthem. There’s a pole center stage, with bright stage lights illuminating the base. A dancer twirls around it, inverts their body, kicks their legs out, and suspends themself, letting their skirt, composed of long red and white strips, sway like the American flag caught in a breeze.
This isn’t Jennifer Lopez at Super Bowl LIV. It’s the king of subway pole dancing, Forty Smooth, performing the US premiere of Gerard & Kelly’s State of, which took place at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) on February 15. Smooth, who danced to Whitney Houston’s rendition of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991, mastered these moves years before Lopez turned heads at this year’s halftime show.
Artists and choreographers Gerard & Kelly aren’t oracles. State of, which was first performed in 2017, unpacks enduring symbols of nationalism, patriotism, and masculinity. Quentin Stuckey and Ryan Kelly (of the Gerard & Kelly duo), who are both white, are known for choreographing dances that challenge our understandings of gender, sexuality, and historical memory. At MOCA, Smooth was joined by the duo, who danced to multiple renditions of the national anthem. We heard Houston belt it at the Super Bowl, Marvin Gaye croon at the 1983 NBA All-Star game, and Stuckey sing it into a microphone. The only set piece was the pole, playing quadruple-metaphor: a flagpole, a torch, a subway support, and an exotic dancer’s stage.
Gerard & Kelly cycle through 500 years of the transatlantic slave trade and civil rights history before getting to the pole. Smooth entered the space on sea legs, stepping around uneasily, trying to find his balance. His arms flung outwards for support, and slowly, he began to flap them like eagle wings. The music wasn’t Houston yet; it was a bugle player, a militarized instrument, ushering his ancestors to American shores. When the anthem began, Smooth knelt before stepping into his role of the flag.
From there, “State of” began its sly critique of masculinity. The costumes, designed by Rio Uribe of the nonbinary clothing brand Gypsy Sport, used traditionally feminine silhouettes. Smooth’s skirt was complemented with a blue and white star-spangled halter top, Stuckey wore short shorts with golden fringe, and Kelly, in a childlike moment where he was pantsed while climbing the pole, revealed a patriotic thong, a Tom of Finland subject come to life.
While the choreography, costumes, and music all shined, sometimes Gerard & Kelly are heavy-handed with their references. The three performers, two Black men — each wearing one black glove — and one White man, accompanied by the replaying of the National Anthem, were an obvious parallel to American Olympians Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Australian Peter Norman. At the 1968 Olympics, Smith and Carlos, who took gold and bronze in the 200-meter dash, raised their fists while they stood on the podium, the Star-Spangled Banner blasting through the stadium in Mexico City; it is one of the most famous photographs in sporting history.
But this allusion wasn’t enough. Stuckey called up an audience member and asked them to pull up the Wikipedia page for the salute on their phone and read the entry into a microphone. Then the men reenacted the gesture. This moment broke up State of‘s poetic rhythm, a jarring interruption of an otherwise entrancing performance.
When “State of” was in its flow, it was graceful and tender. Stuckey and Kelly boosted Smooth high onto the pole and cradled him when he called for a moment to rest, and later on, Smooth and Stuckey took turns carrying the other over their shoulder. The men are each other’s support systems, a brotherhood, and foundation for our nation.
Gerard & Kelly: State of took place at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (152 N Central Ave, Downtown, Los Angeles) on Saturday, February 15.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include more information about Gerard & Kelly’s practice and background.