Gay dance-theater moments at Stonewall @ 50 exhibition

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Steven Weisz |
cover photo is of Audre Lorde Rainbow Flag by Ebony Malaika Collier

June 29, 1969 was a night that started out with gay couples dancing in secret at the Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run Greenwich Village (NYC) dive bar, which then erupted into three nights of gay civil disobedience.  Now, GLBTQ+ people around the world are commemorating a milestone anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots, that galvanizing event that continues to inspire gay people to become advocates for social justice and generations of artists to reflect the rich diversity of the gay culture and communities.

This weekend, a half-century to the day after the uprising, on a similarly steamy June night in Philadelphia, Drexel University’s Pearlstein Gallery unveiled their Stonewall @ 50 exhibition, where the legacies of the gay liberation movements of the late 60s are being commemorated. Co-curated by art scholars David Acosta and Janus Ourma, the new collection is the largest LGBTQ+ Art Exhibit in Philadelphia history.  The exhibit showcases over 100 works by 60 Philadelphia-based LGBTQ artists representing all mediums –  painting, drawing, photography, video, sculpture, fiber work, agitprop, performance, and kinetic installation.

The Philadelphia dance community even played a role when they curators couldn’t get a gallery interested in time for the 50th year observance of Stonewall. With assistance from dancer-choreographer Elba Hevia Y Vaca, The Pearlstein Gallery staff became immediately on board to install the exhibition on short notice. Hevia Y Vaca’s flamenco troupe, Pasíon y Arte had previously performed there.

Dance-theater kicked off the opening reception. People were rushing into the gallery to escape the 95-degree humidity, but minutes later were back outside to see what was a rousing dance invocation by choreographer-dancer Vitche Boul-Ra performing on the steps along with Jordan Deal and Andrew Clark,  and invoking the struggle and perseverance that symbolized the Stonewall Riots.

The trio at first perilously perched on chunks of rock in twister- body-locking acrobatics. They soon break out of this symbolic sculpturing and hurl themselves onto the street, stopping some bewildered traffic with leaps and vocalizing, including shouting ‘pig’ echoing the street queens in Sheridan Square facing off against the NYPD riot police outside the Stonewall Inn.

The dancers popping into some retro-proto-vogue and some with unison sashay. Expressions of physical struggle and perseverance on the rocks, give way to the dancers storming the Pearlstein’s foyer, dancing amok with expressions of liberation and rage against the oppressive racism, sexism, and anti-gay politics that queer Americans are contending with now.

Stonewall @ 50 literally and figuratively couldn’t have landed in a better space than the Pearlstein Gallery with its hanger high ceilings and expansive rooms.  The large crowd flowed in and out from the lobby reception area for drinks and mingling, meanwhile, everyone seemed entranced by the artistic breadth and Queer cultural scope of the show.






Altogether a mosaic of the history of gay culture and politics in the US over generations of multi-national gay Americans since Stonewall.   Actually pre-Stonewall with the visionary artwork (on loan from the Woodmere Gallery) of a lesbian couple who lived in Germantown a century ago.  And at the back of the gallery, everyone at some point hovered over the sandy sculpted granular rainbow that arched over the floor.

Midway through the reception bells cut through the hundreds of people chatting about the work and veteran performance artist Jonas dos Santos entered the space to perform a movement ‘tableaux vivant’ of Japanese Kabuki and Noh Theater.  The classic performance art set against dos Santos presentation of protest placards that speak to issues of our perilous time and issues around queer oppression.

The third performance art piece began with nonbinary singer/artist Wit Lopez’s song of solidarity. Accompanied by fellow vocalists Nolwazi Monique and Sally Louise Polk, as percussive music by Mel Regn floated through the gallery, a crowd gathered around dancer, Rayla Meshawn performing a powerful solo, that communicated strength and individuality.

In the best art exhibit openings, the crowd is of course part of the show, and this crowd of over 700 in attendance, the curators and the gallery (framing a communal gathering a la the 60s) offered a most eloquent expression of artistic and GLBTQ+ diversity.  The event conjured up the legacies of the gay freedom fighters and paid homage to them and their struggle on another hot summer night in June, a half-century ago. The Stonewall @ 50 exhibit is a moving collection of queer art, as a witness, documenting our cultural history of free expression and activism, then, and not a moment too soon in our own perilous time.

Stonewall @50
Friday, June 28 through July 26  
Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, 3401 Filbert Street – URBN Annex, Philadelphia, PA
www.leonardpearlsteingallery | (215) 895-2548

For more photos by Steven Weisz of opening night, click here

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