Study of movement, gender, human experience: An interview with choreographer James Graham

Elaine Chung/Staff

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In addition to a proficiency in dancing, acting and singing, in his most recent piece, “Alpha Mouse,” choreographer James Graham requires of his performers an acute sense of selflessness. The dancers in “Alpha Mouse” must exhibit a boldness, a willingness to engage fully with the choreography, even when the emotions Graham asks them to portray — ranging in nature from lighthearted to sensual to angry — may not come easily.

This “evening length” work, in accordance with the show’s promotion, explores the ways in which we as human beings engage and interact with the variety of gender roles and relations encountered as part of the complex, and often messy, human experience. The piece brings together 14 performers, Graham himself included, and occupies an emerging form of production currently central to the Bay Area, by the name of “dancetheater.”

In an interview with The Daily Californian, the choreographer shed some light on the origins of “Alpha Mouse” and the developments that made it into the audience-ready performance premiering this Thursday, Sept. 28, at San Francisco’s ODC theater.

Graham cites his undergraduate theater major at Cal as influential in his creative process. Dancetheater, which he considers a nondichotomous marriage of dance and acting, grants the performance an inherent multidisciplinary quality. In a production attempting to engage with the role of gender in human relationships, such theatrical techniques make “Alpha Mouse,” in Graham’s words, “a bit more luscious, a bit more full, a bit more interesting.”

The practice of Gaga influences much of “Alpha Mouse.” Graham, a certified Gaga instructor, teaches the “movement language” throughout the Bay Area. At the same time, however, he does not consider “Alpha Mouse” a Gaga dance.

Instead, Graham notes that his audience will not “ ‘see’ Gaga” in the same fashion that they might see ballet or hip-hop. Gaga informs the way in which the performers inhabit the stage on a less linear, but decidedly more intimate level. The practice of Gaga works from the “inside out,” according to Graham. “My dance resides in a deep place, an internal place, in my cells, and it’s … sent out from that place to the audience.”

While Graham describes Gaga as focused on “sensation, other than the way it looks,” in “Alpha Mouse,” the dancers do not have the luxury of exclusively focusing inward. They must inevitably abide by such constraints as choreography and line memorization. In “Alpha Mouse,” Graham’s priority remains his audience, “trying to craft (their experience), so that it’s intentional, it’s not haphazard.”

The name “Alpha Mouse” itself speaks to a prevalent undercurrent throughout the entirety of the piece: a challenge to the image of power as synonymous with intimidation. According to Graham, “it takes more of yourself being big to not yell at someone.”

Influences from Graham’s past projects also assert themselves in “Alpha Mouse.” Notably, his award-winning duet, “Homeroom,” exhibits a similar abstractionist form of movement and focus on human connection. At the same time, “Alpha Mouse” promises to differentiate itself from its predecessors. While “Homeroom” consisted of a solely male cast, “Alpha Mouse” includes female performers. In this manner, Graham adds another dimension of complexity to the production. As a male choreographer intrigued by “finding the power that exists inside of women,” he mentions consulting his female performers. For instance, in January, around the time of the Women’s March, Graham recalls discussing the role of men as allies in the protest: “Nobody invited me, but I agree with everything, but I’m a male, you know, and … is that appropriate?”

Graham’s self-identification as a gay man complicates his understanding of his own role in gender dynamics. Finding himself somewhere between the typical cultural understandings of, as he voices, “feminine” and “macho,” he demonstrates an awareness, and subsequent wariness, of gender and norms of sexual orientation. “Alpha Mouse” builds upon this recognition.

Crafted gradually over the course of the past year, “Alpha Mouse” has evolved significantly from conception to final product. Considering its foundation in Graham’s interpretation of the human experience, it makes sense that the production has developed and grown along with Graham himself. In fact, the choreographer attributes the undisguised raw emotion his dancers work to exude in part to the extended period of time spent on the work. As his art stems from daily observations, the ability to create during different stages of personal change lends Graham’s final product an air of authenticity. As the choreographer himself points out, “If I make something over a year or more, I feel that each section can have its own flavor, its own color, because it’s made in a particular time and place that I am different in in each one.”

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].