A fetishized bicycle, spiked high heels, decadent strings of pearls and football uniforms will decorate six dancers as they poke and twist our concept of gender. The hourlong program, “Men! Men! Men!” curated by Thurnau Professor of Dance Peter Sparling, is a complement to UMMA’s exhibition of the Hergott Shepard Photography Collection.

Outside of the Box:Men! Men! Men!

University of Michigan Museum of Art
Sunday, March 22nd, 6-7:30pm
Tickets: Free

The world-acclaimed collection, running through June at the museum with Mario Codognato as guest curator, focuses on the concept of masculinity and the complexity of male identity in contemporary society. Nadine Hubbs, Professor of Women’s studies and Music, and MFA student Michael Parmelee assisted in the curation of “Men! Men! Men!”

Sparling, who has been at the University for the last 30 years, made a name for himself by integrating dance with the visual arts, sciences, video and other creative media, establishing a long-standing relationship with UMMA.

Sparling sent out a call for students to consider what it meant to explore male identities. He received six enthusiastic responses, from four current students and two alumni. The dancers are Maddy Rager and Chris Sies, Marcus White, Michael Parmelee and Amy Guilmette, Anthony Alterio and Tru Yunkman.

“One of the alums, Amy Guilmette, responded immediately after I sent the call saying ‘you know, this makes me think of how I have always felt that I am a seven-year-old boy in a woman’s body,’” Sparling said.

Each piece will bravely tell a different story, like this one.

“If people are shocked or offended, that’s their problem. I kind of hope that some people are. I want, and the performers want, to jostle people out of their complacency,” Sparling said.

Undoubtedly, the performance will be a spectacle. He describes several of the highlights to provide a sense of its range: Tru Yunkman uses dance to transform from woman to man, Michael Parma Lee explores sexuality through his dialogue with a bicycle and Maddy Rager and her percussionist partner, Chris Sies, will wear football uniforms from the high school her father teaches at, in a duet usually performed in baroque costume.

Curating moving bodies is different than curating stationary objects, like paintings or photos.

“In curating a performance, I think about whether there is a common thread throughout, or whether there isn’t, and how to maximize juxtapositions so that contrasts come forward and it doesn’t all blend together,” Sparling said. “So how do you arrange the trajectory so that you get the most impact out of the whole cumulative effect?”

Modern dance has had an important role in addressing social and political themes for decades. Recently, dance has partnered more frequently with other kinds of art and within performance art to address complicated issues, like gender, tying itself more closely to politics.

“In more and more cultural theory, the moving dancing body is being considered as a text to be read about everything and anything in its culture and environment,” Sparling said.

“Here at U of M and in the broader field of dance, we’re really looking at contemporary dance as a barometer for the way that people react and behave and how their bodies and motions tell everything about how they project their identity within a culture.”

Sparling has a strong belief in the unique power of moving bodies to affect people deeply in a way that other forms of art, like text and even photographs, which can act as filters, cannot.

“Dance cuts through to a part of the brain that reacts and responds viscerally. There’s something immediate about a live body in the same space you’re in. It’s dangerous!” he said.

The pieces will be performed in the old wing of the museum, within the apse, without the familiar safety of stage. This proximity is a personal invitation to audience members to step outside of their comfort zones and engage with the questions raised before them.

“Hopefully, people are at an age (and at a place of learning) where they want to learn about themselves. And of course, at the ages of 18 to 25, it’s a hot time to try and figure out who in the hell you are. So why not be engaged and challenge yourself to think about these things like gender identity?” Sparling said, appealing to students.

“Men! Men! Men!” exemplifies the role of contemporary dance, pushing the boundaries of art, convention, space, bodies themselves and audience members. While the pieces themselves will step outside of the box, audience members will be required to do so as well.

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