Jerron Herman’s Relative can be perceived all at once as a solo danced by the choreographer himself, as a duo collaboration with soundscape and DJ performance by Kevin Gotkin, and as a collective clubbing experience for everyone and everything in the theater space. This ambiguous treading in-between the personal, the interpersonal, and the collective can be felt from the beginning of the piece, that is, if one can pinpoint when the work exactly begins.
Presented as part of the 2019 festival I wanna be with you everywhere, “a gathering of, by, and for disabled artists and writers” at Performance Space New York, Relative concludes an extensive evening of dance and performance, sharing the bill with Kayla Hamilton and Alice Shepard. Already in the intermission, Gotkin installs the DJ booth in the upstage left corner and plays techno music rather loudly, although it feels casual enough that I assume he is doing sound testing. In the meantime, people are talking, moving in and out of the audience area, the bathroom, and “the quiet room” next door, where ambient lighting and comfortable beds and couches provide a calmer atmosphere for socializing and resting.
Twenty minutes later, Herman enters the theater, dressed fabulously in shiny silver metallic pants and a matching tank top. His quiet presence commands so much attention that many spectators turn their gazes toward him, clapping and cheering him on. He does not demand this attention, though. On the contrary, he simply walks to the center stage, turns his back against the audience area, and stands there quietly shifting side to side to the rhythm of the music. The chit-chatting soon resumes, the individual focal point gradually zooms back out into the collective, the performance and the social space contract and expand into each other.
In the program note, Relative is described as “the accessible club of our underground dreams,” in which “we’ll express the joy of relation in the abstract and through actual physical proximity.” Nonetheless, the joy in this accessible dance party does not horizontalize social relations and flatten hierarchies, nor does it allow categories of bodies to disappear into an uncritically utopic network of physical matter. Not that the dance is not utopic, but the utopia enacted by Herman is, in José Muñoz’s words, concrete and not abstract: “Concrete utopias are relational to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actualized or potential.”
The abstract physical proximity described in the program note does not translate into abstract escapist optimism. Herman grounds the work in the violent history of ableism and racism, using his visibly disabled and black body to both make explicit and destabilize the normative gaze that marks his otherness. Therefore, the joy of relation cannot be untethered from the violence of historical relation. Herman certainly embodies the painful history of seeing otherness, but only ambivalently. His ultimate orientation is daringly utopic — his radical enactment of a utopia relies on the dangerous push and pull between joy and pain, between inclusion and exclusion, between voyeurism and collectivity, between seeing and feeling, between a spectacle of otherness and an affective belonging.
Several audience chairs are scattered around the performance area and a few wheelchair users are invited to position themselves on stage, framing around Herman’s standing spot. Herman’s movements grow bigger. He undulates his body and circles his hips in a seductive manner. His right arm gestures upward to the sky and spirals around to the back toward the audience space, while his left arm stays rather still, bent at the elbow and attached to the front of his torso. His physical differences, scientifically identified as hemiplegia cerebral palsy, become immediately visible to my ableist gaze, whose voyeurism is further amplified by the nightlife context referenced in Relative. Herman appears not unlike a go-go dancer in the club whose dancing brings extreme pleasure to my eyes. His water-like sequencing fluidity, his sensual shifting from one off-center pose to another, his precise articulation of each body part, all of which pair with the tropical flavor of the percussive techno beat to generate a dreamy, feel-good, and sexy vibe.
There is an expansiveness to his presence that feels very inviting, that keeps me on the edge of my seat at all times. When he speeds up his footwork to match the tempo of the music, this corporeal expansiveness contracts into his center of gravity, allowing him to stay grounded when twisting into physically precarious positions. The relationship between Herman and the audience members is heightened as our grooving become in sync. However, if my groove follows the 4/4 rhythm neatly, the dancer is never quite on top of the beat but he rubs against it in constant syncopation. Each step he takes vibrates throughout his body in a jerky and unpredictable manner, creating layers of rhythm that are mesmerizing to watch and feel.
One interpretation of Relative as an accessible underground club can be made through Mia Mingus’ critical notion of “access intimacy:”
Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs. Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations. Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access. I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability.
Access intimacy goes beyond and beneath the overrepresented (yet largely overlooked) idea of accessibility that focuses on equality and inclusion, on altering the physical architecture and the logistics to squeeze disabled people into the ableist world. Access intimacy is felt as an interpersonal relationship. In Mingus’ radical imagination of accessibility, it cannot be quantified formulaically but rather circulates as affects, connection, and vulnerability, permeating even and especially when everything is not 100% accessible.
In a similar vein, and with regards to the night club in particular, Gotkin himself defines meaningful accessibility as “not merely pragmatic but transcendent.” His essay “Crip Club Vibes: Technologies of New Nightlife” demands a creative exploring and remaking of nightlife technologies — “our clothing, our intoxications, our sounds, our artwork” — to reimagine how to share and create space from the cultural and aesthetic force of disability. Put it differently, it is not enough that disabled people can physically get into the club, but the culture and the aesthetics of the club have to be grounded in and for disabled folks. Herman’s dancing can be seen as, in Gotkin’s words, a “[refusal of] the audism of nightlife spaces,” “transmut[ing] the vibrations into a sighted and perhaps haptic experience.” Relative attempts to explore other senses other than hearing, not as a pragmatic form of inclusion (e.g., transcribing and projecting lyrics for Deaf clubgoers), but as a different route toward transcendence, towards losing one’s individuality into the collectivity.
It is important to note that Relative does not happen in isolation, but further mounts on the existing work of the festival to bring about the feeling of access intimacy. For instance, my uneventful, repetitive, and ritualistic pre-performance choreography of picking up tickets and waiting for the house to open is profoundly disrupted by the temporary structures of care that I have never encountered in this venue. The staff not only greets me with a program note, but also directs me to where I can inquire about my accessibility needs, or where I can get a refund for my traveling expenses to this already donation-based festival ($0-$25), or where I can rest in the quiet room at any time without worrying about disturbing the performances. This evening makes me realize how the many visibly disabled bodies here (and certainly many other not-so-visibly disabled bodies) are conspicuously absent in the other programs at Performance Space, which treats accessibility as a secondary, if not a tertiary matter.
However, it is difficult for me as an able-bodied person to immerse within Relative on this level of access intimacy and transcendence — I can only sketch out and speculate on a rational level how this feeling of access intimacy might materialize for disabled folks. Hence, I want to offer a second interpretation of Relative that is more grounded in the uncomfortable in-between spaces of singular-collective, inclusion-exclusion, seeing-feeling, otherness-belonging, that produces a complicated joy of relation within the hegemonic culture of ableism and racism.
The moments that produce the most discomfort and also the most pleasure for me are when the spotlight is shone on Herman’s dancing, figuratively and at times literally. As if dancing for an external gaze, his movements are temporarily transformed into a theatrical spectacle and his physical differences are made hypervisible. His otherness combines with the pleasure of his movement to push his body dangerously close to the status of a (sexual) fetish, thus making explicit the danger of our ableist voyeuristic gaze, which has been trained to mark the Other with our injurious norms.
This danger emerges out of the violent history where sexuality, disability, and race intersect. In particular, Robert McRuer identifies two contradictory norms around the sexuality of the disabled body: (1) either it is conceived as full of aberrant and excessive desires that need to be contained both physically and discursively, (2) or it is desexualized due to its supposed “innocence.” Herman’s visible blackness, whose racialization already involves hypersexualization, further intensifies this violent history, making his body the convergence of multiple racial-disabled-sexual otherness. Nevertheless, it is worth evoking how Jennifer Nash approaches this messy site of pleasure, race (and, we can also add, disability) in her project The Black Body In Ecstasy, which studies the representation of black women in film pornography: “Black pleasures can include racialization even when (and precisely because) racialization is painful.” This radical reconceptualization of pleasure, not in spite of but because of violence, opens up the ethical possibilities for collective belonging amidst the danger that Relative produces.
Herman does not let us dwell too long in the uneasiness of our spectatorship; he soon pulls away from this voyeuristic mode of performance to again welcome the audience into the dance. Keeping his steps to the rhythm, he edges closer to the audience members on stage and enacts inviting, if not sexually seductive hand gestures while looking directly at them. The singular focus diffuses, the spectacular gaze gives in to the communal groove as the performance slowly turns into a dance party. Now that the attention is no longer exclusively on his body, the danger of voyeurism gives way to another kind of danger — the danger of losing oneself in the collective rhythm.
A concrete utopia, that which poses as a danger to the social order.