NORTH ADAMS — A new work by choreographer Richard Move promises to explore the idea of gender outlaws not just as a new phenomenon, but an ignored one through history. His piece, "XXYY," will be performed at Mass MoCA at 8 p.m. on Friday, following a residency at the museum.
The multi-media dance-theater work marks a collaboration between Move and Italian costume designer Alba Clemente, with the conception of the project beginning about two years ago during brainstorming sessions between the two and Italian artist Paolo Canevari. The team brought in Italian electronic music pioneer Martux_m during a residency at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
Move says the piece is an exploration of gender through the influence of two actual gender outlaws from a century ago. One, Alessandro Moreschi, was the last castrato singer and the only one to ever be recorded. At the turn of the century Pope Pius X ended the tradition of castrati and Moreschi lived out his days in an apartment in the Vatican, not exiled but forever held captive as an outsider. Music by Moreschi will be featured in the performance.
A bulk of the influence, though, comes from the author of a book that Move came across during his Ph.D studies, a memoir published in 1918 by Ralph Werther, a.k.a. Jenny June, called "Autobiography of an Androgyne," which addresses issues that Move thinks are, unfortunately, as relevant as ever in the current United States.
"It was published only for medical professionals, legal professionals and clergy, a limited edition, they only published 1,000, and it was meant to enlighten and educate those professions to the notion of cross gender, transgender, gender non conforming individuals," said Move. "The life at that time, here in NYC, where Ralph Werther a.k.a. Jenny June live, was to say the least very difficult. One had to endure beatings, robberies, thefts, violent crime, really really harsh. And somehow this creature began documenting their own life with the hope — it was so ahead of its time — that the voice would be heard by the thought leaders of the era in legal, medical and religious professions, to create tolerance and empathy, but first just kind of an understanding. There was so little science at the time surrounding gender identity and of course any same sex sexual activity was illegal. Cross dressing in public was illegal. In a very certain way, this author was so brave to go public with all of this and to live this life. It's one of the most extraordinary books that I've ever encountered as fact."
Move was so affected by the book that at one point he actually threw out his copy rather than cope with the pain inside it. But as Move puts it, the book "was calling," and he began to think about it as the basis for a work, he bought multiple copies to give to his collaborators. And in Move's brain, there were connections between the androgyne and the castrato that were important for the developing work.
"Ralph Werther a.k.a. Jenny June was a deeply religious Christian person, so there was not only a struggle with humanity and citizenry all around this individual, but a struggle and a grappling with God itself," Move said. "So it struck so many chords with me, it really hit home in so many ways. I could identify with this person on so many different levels. They both sacrifice a part of themselves for a higher calling, to get closer to God, and similarly with the androgyne, there's a martyrdom with both of these figures. Both of them are trying to get closer to a higher power, even though they're as outsider as an outsider can get."
Move says that the costume design came first in the conception and that has really guided the choreography. He and the other two dancers will be wearing masks, and Move describes Clemente's as another character in the piece, with Move portraying the castrato while the other two dancers take on the character of the androgyne.
"Clemente is playing and challenging and deconstructing all these conventions of binary male and female attire —make-up, facial hair, pants, men's shirts, female undergarments, high heels," said Move, "creating really an exquisite palette of hand painted, one of a kind creations, these garments, and these garments signify the morphing, gender fluid feeling of the work, so very much the four of us in conversation."
Move has made a career of his portrayals of dance legend Martha Graham, and the work-in-progress "Martha@ 20," a celebration of performing as Graham for two decades, will also be featured at the Mass MoCA event. Move feels the two pieces "speak to each other," and points to Graham as a feminist icon who changed the role of women in the arts, and invented an entirely new art form. The other two dancers featured in "XXYY," Katherine Crockett and Catherine Cabeen, are former Graham company dancers.
"I identify somewhere on the gender spectrum as gender fluid, so I feel like she inhabits me, and my body is capable on some level of channeling her," Move said. "Of course, there's the statement of gender by virtue of my perceived gender, but, and this is where it gets so interesting and complicated, I don't identify as male fully. So is it a cross-gender substantiation? To a degree."