An Interview with Allison Blakeney
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; PHOTOGRAPHY BY HANNAH LARSON
Allison Blakeney is a dance artist based in Boulder, CO, and the co-director of Excessive Realness, an annual queer-normative dance intensive geared toward LGBTQIA+ people. Here, they share how their own background in the competition dance world did not expose them to queer expression, how Excessive Realness’ curriculum tries to encompass the many facets of queer experience, and what shifts they’d like to see in the larger dance world to promote and expand queer representation.
Excessive Realness 2020 is postponed due to COVID-19, date TBD. Check ExcessiveRealness.com for the latest updates.
Excessive Realness co-directors Allison Blakeney and Anthony Alterio
Can you tell me a little about your dance history – what kinds of performance practices and in what contexts have shaped who you are today?
I grew up in the competition dance world in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I was primed for commercial dance in Los Angeles. At my studio, my teacher had lived in LA and knew people at EDGE Performing Arts Center. I thought that was the place you went if you were a professional. I really just wanted to be a backup dancer for Justin Timberlake.
When I was 18, I moved out to LA and got accepted into a year-long scholarship program at EDGE. There were classes in singing, acting and of course dance. It was in line with jazz dance, but there was not a lot of talk of lineage and its connections to African dance. This is unfortunately common in the world of competition and commercial dance. My body was shaped through certain forms and histories that I didn’t know.
While I was in LA, I wasn’t out as queer/nonbinary, but I felt misplaced. I was constantly told to be more feminine. A ballet teacher even told me to eat only 400 calories a day, which is insane because I was dancing eight hours a day and also working at a coffee shop on my feet.
At age 20, I moved back to Colorado, but to Boulder. I was ready to quit dance but, luckily, I met Jenny Schiff of The Schiff Dance Collective. We had a deep connection, as she had experience in the commercial dance world as well. She taught dance in a different way though, asking: How can we move from a deep connection with ourselves? She was trained in Black modern dance, which was more connected to spirituality. That was the first time I felt free in my body, where I felt like I deserved to move my body and it was beautiful. It was a huge shift in learning to love dance again.
In Boulder, I started dancing at the Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop, where I learned about Graham, Limón and other forms I had literally never heard of. It was a whole new way of dancing. Honestly, even if I had learned about them before, I wouldn’t have been open to receiving that information. I was conditioned to believing that the competition and commercial dance world was the best. That’s why I didn’t apply to be a dance major in undergrad, because I thought it would be too easy. There was a lot of ego there.
Through Anthony Alterio, who I met at Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop, I started learning more about experimental forms of dance as well as creating/choreographing. However, there was still a lot of influence from commercial dance in my life. At that point, I was straddling different dance worlds.
I decided to apply to grad school to combine my love of dance and social justice. I went to NYU, and my world was blown open. In the performance department I met André Lepecki, a huge writer on dance and performance. He writes about race in dance and how to align with Blackness, asking how we politicize dance. Racial justice was a big piece of my thesis, so this was important. I also started learning about queer art and performance. My world broadened.
However, academia gave me a lot of anxiety; I felt like I wasn’t smart enough. I ended up moving back to Boulder for my partner. I wanted to engage with dance and life in a whole different way. That led me to doing an immersive theater project with Control Group Productions.
Beyond that, it’s hard as a nonbinary person to go to dance classes. Classes are super gendered, no matter how well-intentioned people are. If a person isn’t able to look at the ways their behavior, actions, words and teaching make their class inaccessible, their intention doesn’t matter. Intention must be considered at the same time as impact. I taught an LGBTQ dance class for a while, but I didn’t think I was really being of service, so I’ve taken a break to figure things out.
How did Excessive Realness get started?
In 2016 or so, I was still in New York at grad school. I was out as queer and just coming out as nonbinary. I would oscillate between she and they pronouns. Anthony approached me about this idea for an LGBTQ-oriented dance intensive and asked if I wanted to direct it with him. I was scared, because I knew I would have to be out in a whole different way if I was going to be co-director. The first Excessive Realness was held in 2018.
Donald C. Shorter Jr.’s class “Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Masterclass” at Excessive Realness
How is Excessive Realness structured?
It happens once a year in the summer, though this year it is postponed due to the coronavirus. It will next be held in Washington DC, and it will be a week long, though dates are to be decided. There are three to four classes each day, and participants can choose what to take, as well as if they want to drop in for a class, get a day pass, stay for a few days, or stay for the whole week. We had more than 20 participants last year, and they were from around the US. All participants are over 18, but some are in their 30s and even 40s. Most though are in their 20s and 30s.
There are other events beyond classes, like a performance that many of the teachers perform in called The Spill. It can be anything from works-in-progress to a finished show. We’re partnering with Dance Place in Washington DC for the next Excessive Realness, so there will be other events happening that participants can also go to.
Excessive Realness moves around the US every year, and I see it continuing to move around in the future. In thinking about accessibility, lots of people can’t attend dance intensives because you have to book a flight and an Airbnb, and then pay for the intensive itself. If we move it around the country each year, hopefully it can be accessible to more people. If it’s not a place where someone can get to right now, it might be in a year or two.
How do you select the curriculum and faculty for Excessive Realness?
We have a panel that chooses the teaching artists, and there are different artists every year. Anthony and I both taught at the first Excessive Realness intensive due to financial limitations, but since then we only organize it. The way we have been able to pay teaching artists appropriately is that we don’t get paid ourselves. This year the panel selected six faculty. Our panel is racially diverse and is made up of people who have been supportive of us. There are four to six people on the panel including me and Anthony.
The curriculum depends on what the artists submit. We look at all the submissions and decide what we’ve had in the past and what we feel is missing from our curriculum. A lot of people apply with somatic modern classes, but we don’t want to choose four artists who offer the same class. We also want folks who are explicit about why what they teach touches on queerness. We encourage forms that come from Black and Latinx communities, like vogueing, waacking and ballroom. It’s a huge part of queer dance that is often invisible and erased.
The word “realness” in Excessive Realness comes from ball culture. I didn’t know that when Anthony proposed the name. The fact that I didn’t know that is in and of itself the problem, when two white co-directors take on a name without knowing the historical impact of it. It was this whole learning and growth process. As we’re coming out of discussing what this word means and sharing it with people, we found that other white teachers at the intensive last year didn’t know the history of the word either.
Another way our curriculum is different is being explicit about why a class can be queer and how it can change perspective. The term ‘queer theory’ was actually coined by a straight woman. It wasn’t about sexuality or gender, though it’s more about that now. It was about an alignment with a different perspective. We had a class about inversions and floorwork, for example, which articulated why it can be considered queer to be upside down and change perspective.
Félix Cruz’s performance A(he)ir at Excessive Realness
What lessons have you learned from organizing Excessive Realness over the past three years?
One thing I’ve learned is that nobody is going to believe in what I’m doing if I don’t also believe in it. This past fall, I was doing social justice fundraising through the Chinook Fund. In grassroots work, we learn a lot about racial and class justice. One thing I learned was that when we ground ourselves in the work, the fear of asking for money is less important.
We’re in year three of Excessive Realness and I’m in this place where I finally feel like I deserve to be where I am. Getting support – through money or supplies – is much easier when I’m firmly grounded in the belief in myself and the work. The first two years, I didn’t believe in myself. I learned that if I feel worthless, that affects what I do in the world.
Finally, I learned a lesson I knew already but was reminded of, which is how important social justice is in dance. We wanted input about the name ‘Excessive Realness’ from the participants last year. A lot of people of color showed up, and I recognized the toll those conversation take on people of color, and specifically on Black people as opposed to white people, even if we share an LGBTQ identity. It’s an awareness that these conversations have different weights for different people depending on our lived experience in the world.
How do you hope to expand/grow Excessive Realness in the future?
One thing we really wanted from the beginning was to have two levels so people who are beginners can come take class. One track would be for LGBTQ people with more training, and one for people who are more beginner. We just don’t have resources for that yet.
For me, a dream would be for Excessive Realness to not be as tied to academia or university dance. In some ways it’s not, since Dance Place is supporting us this year, but in other ways it’s difficult to get teachers and participants without going through universities. That being said, we are thankful for the support by the dance department at UC Boulder, especially by Erika Randall and Ondine Geary. However, I generally find academia inaccessible for a lot of people, so I wonder how we can move away from that.
Speaking generally, what are some shifts (if any) you’ve seen or experienced with regards to representation of LGBTQ+ voices in dance?
I grew up around queer people of color dancing, which is super rare, so there was representation, but nobody was explicitly talking about queerness. It was super gendered and heteronormative. In Boulder, there’s a good number of queer people, but there’s still a pull toward performing the gender binary and heteronormativity. It feels like queer people can be a part of dance as long as they keep themselves contained.
In the professional world, it’s just not explicit. I have a specific politic that is pro Black, trans, women, queer and disability. I want dance to be explicit about that representation. It’s not enough to say, “Everyone can come, and we’ll be a happy family.” That’s just not true.
What can allies – studio owners, presenters, festival organizers, etc. – do to help promote LGBTQ+ visibility in their own niches of the dance world?
Dance studios need to think about the messages they are sending young children. What are we telling little children when they come into dance class and the young boy is the center of everything? We are priming children for certain experiences and then not supporting them.
We need to get educated and implement it. We can go through all the trainings we want, but if we’re not actually practicing, it’s not enough. We have to integrate those trainings into our lives.
Allies also need to get clear internally about lines and boundaries. What are you really willing to stand for and show up for, and how do you communicate it? For me, the harm comes when someone communicates they want to be an ally, but haven’t actually clarified what they are willing to show up for.
Any other thoughts?
When it comes to LGBTQ visibility, I think about expanding our understanding of the body and our beliefs about biological essentialism. For example, it’s often taught that women’s pelvises are different than men’s. Where is that belief coming from? What is meant by ‘women’? Who is excluded from that binary? There’s so much diversity when it comes to bodies, which is how our species thrives. We need to be careful about generalizations.
Kebrina Josefina De Jesus’ company Samba Colorado in The Duality Within Me at Excessive Realness
To learn more, visit excessiverealness.com.