Post:Ballet's Lavender Country is a Landscape of Love
San Francisco, April 23, 2019—Post:Ballet opens their tenth season with a reprise of Artistic Director Robert Dekkers' 2017 country western gay ballet Lavender Country. The title takes its name from Patrick Haggerty's country music band and his 1973 album, the first known gay-themed album in country music history. This one-act program highlights singer and songwriter Haggerty and his band with choreography by Vanessa Thiessen and direction by Dekkers. Nominated in 2017 by SF Classical Voice for "Best Dance Performance," Lavender Country is described on Post:Ballet's web site as, "a moving celebration of unconditional love and radical defiance."
When choreographer Vanessa Thiessen was moved by the sight of a field of lavender, she asked the dancers of Post:Ballet to remember a place that held that kind of significance for them and to "create a phrase based on the architecture of that space," according to Robert. Vanessa made Lavender Country basically phrased from the lavender fields, and each of the dancers brought their own stories into it, and "Patrick's story is central to this work", says Robert.
Robert and Vanessa took each of the dancer's phrases and pulled out elements to make group phrases for all the dancers. Dancer Keon Saghari phrased a solo on one of Patrick's songs titled To a Woman. A love song sung by a woman known only as Eve, it is the only song in the performance that is recorded and not sung by Patrick Haggerty. Unfortunately, despite Patrick's searches, the identity of Eve remains a mystery 40 years after the song premiered.
Choreographer Vanessa supported Keon's interpretation and guided her in the choreography. While some elements are dancers' contributions, other parts are Vanessa's choreography. "That's the way I like to work," says Robert, "respecting everyone's input. Not only does everyone have agency, but they're being supported as an artist." What he looks for in dancers is not only technique, but creativity and curiosity as well as self-motivation. But the dancers' contributions are not a "free-for-all." If you don't give direction, it's no fun," he says, "it needs coordination."
"Everyone feels invested in the work," says Robert, "everyone feels essential to its success. That feels good, to be a part of it." Unlike the hierarchy of dancers in traditional classical ballet, with principals and soloists and so on, dancers in a small company such as Post:Ballet can each have space to be an individual. "I love seeing different bodies, different kinds of backgrounds and training," he continues. As participants in the creative process, "For example, Ray (Ejiofor) has a hip-hop, street dance influence, and sometimes the dancers will pick up on it and weave that into their movement, and vice versa. They're all sort of feeding off of each other." The process evolves organically.
Robert expresses his admiration for Vanessa's ability as a choreographer to recognize dancers' abilities and get them to move outside their parameters. "She pulls things out of people..to be themselves...to unlock their natural capacity." His goal is to find people to work with he can believe in, and that's how he feels about Vanessa. "I feel that she's carrying the vision that I have for Post forward in a way that frees me to do other things to support the company."
Robert got the idea for creating the dance when he first heard Patrick Haggerty's Lavender Country album. He was so fascinated he stayed up to 5:00 in the morning listening to it. "I kind of had this broad strokes idea to reach out to Patrick," he says, "and he somehow or other said 'yes' to my crazy idea." Then Robert contacted Vanessa. He created what he calls "a skeleton", which Vanessa fleshed out with "a real back and forth along the way" of reciprocal input. Sometimes he has a firm idea of what he wants, and other times he welcomes other ideas.
To people who are neither country music fans nor gay and who feel they could not relate to Lavender Country, Robert says the music of Lavender Country happens to be the vessel for the stories and experiences that Patrick has had. When it was performed in 2017, some fathers of gay sons approached Robert afterward and, in tears, explained how they needed to hear it. "Patrick talks about experiences in the 1960's and 1970's when every time they went outside, their life was on the line," Robert says, "Loving and supporting your friends are human experiences that go beyond."
Post:Ballet's Lavender Country runs April 25-27 at Z Space.