Drama Tops: This is for You, a highly nuanced look at the experience of gender transition from choreographer and lead dancer Elby Brosch, premiered in January of 2020 at Washington Hall to three nights of sold-out audiences. The work reveals Brosch’s navigation of culturally imposed gender norms through movement, music, and metaphor, examining the nature of transformation from beginning to end.
Brosch explores the spaces in between each side of the gender binary by highlighting his experiences at either end of the spectrum in two similar sections. In the first, he dances with collaborator Shane Donohue, then later with Jordan Macintosh-Hougham. Carefully and precisely, they repeat alternating phrases of words and movement in unison, their gazes fixed forward. They speak with a flat intonation, but colorful and flamboyant descriptions of physical, cultural, and metaphorical identity details emerge from their mouths:
“We have the body of a Greek God”
“We are a furry cheeked otter pup”
“We have testosterone-fueled facial hair”
The blank cadence of the statements makes them feel like incantations, as if through this repetitive process they might garner more factuality. It reminds me of the way those of us with often-erased identities must speak our true selves into existence before we’ve fully emerged, and how often, the markers of identity that we move toward in our attempts to define ourselves end up not fitting us once we’ve arrived there. This journey is present in the way the two sections diverge. In the section’s second iteration, dancing alongside Macintosh-Hougham, a trans non-binary person, we see the two represent traditional feminine socialization: they erupt into a meek frenzy of apologies when Brosch suddenly veers from their automatic speech. Donohue, by contrast, represents conventional masculinity. When he and Brosch’s words diverge, Donohue continues uninterrupted, talking confidently over Brosch even though they’ve stopped saying the same thing.
Words, movements, and whole sections repeat with slight differences that alter the perception of what preceded them, the meaning of early sections deepening when seen in a new context. How time affects our understanding of events is an inherent part of Brosch’s work. One such moment features Brosch and Donohue, accompanied by the transphobic song “Grow a Pear” by Ke$ha, engaged in a repetitive pattern of skipping that brings them straight down the middle of the stage before peeling away from one another. As Ke$ha’s irritatingly autotuned voice squeaks about her refusal to continue a relationship with a man who dares to show a full range of emotions, Brosch and Donohue outstretch their hands to receive sequential high fives from each audience member in the front row. As they meet back in the middle, their interactions begin to shift from playful to aggressive. At times they shove each other to the floor with giant smiles across their faces. The first time, the section feels shocking and sarcastic. The audience’s reaction is mixed. Some people laugh out loud, others look uncomfortable. When we see it again, the dancers’ exhaustion creeps into the movements. This time, rather than surprise, the song choice creates a numbness in my body and a desire for it to end as quickly as possible. The whole scene is reminiscent of the ways in which subtle cultural messages over time can trap us into fractured versions of ourselves, and how these pervasive, repetitive messages, perpetuated by everyone from friends and family to cultural icons, can seem benign when in fact they have profoundly affected our sense of self.
Throughout the work, we are invited to feel the emotions and sensations I imagine Brosch has felt before, during, and after his transition. Towards the end of the piece, Macintosh-Hougham comes to the stage for a solo in which they prance, releasing handfuls of pink rose petals into the air from a woven basket carried in their opposite hand. They repeat a series of soft, side to side steps, their upper body and long, blonde hair waving back and forth as they saturate each section of the floor with the petals. The Venusian beauty of the image conjures a feminine energy into the space and invites us to appreciate and celebrate it.
The tenderness makes it all the more powerful when Donohue begins a machine-like imposition with a push broom. With staunch and meticulous rigidity he moves from one edge of the stage to the other, creating neat piles of the strewn petals as Brosch and Macintosh-Hougham move out of his way. I feel a quiet ache in my gut as Donohue sweeps. His gaze never meets that of his fellow performers, but instead stays glued toward the floor directly in front of the broom, intent on clearing away any and all evidence of the soft, pink petals. The message seems to be that the imposition of rigid binary identities leaves no room for the complexity of real human beings, regardless of how we understand ourselves.
Brosch and his collaborators have created a unique piece of artwork that authentically communicates the complexity of gender identity and Brosch’s individual experience of transition. This is For You is a gift that pushes its audience to move past not only our binary understandings of gender, but that of gender transition. Brosch’s honesty and generosity shows his trust in us to hold the many layers of his truth.