Review: Dancing Qweens

6 February 2019

There is little more anxiety-inducing in live theatre than the word ‘participation.’. But to describe James Welsby’s Dancing Qweens immersive and communal experience as simple participation would be a complete disservice to the queer time warp that Welsby’s alter ego, Valerie Hex, led us through at Carlton’s Dancehouse. Had I known this in advance, I might have made a run for it.

Queer culture is too often derisively confined to the club space, pigeonholed as a community centred around hedonism. “Sircuit!” was the first shout after Valerie asked for the audience’s favourite queer venues. It’s this confinement that the show interacts with, digging up the forgotten queer history beneath ballroom styles — once secretly enjoyed at Val’s Coffee Lounge on Swanston St — liberated disco boogie, its queer cousin waacking and, of course, vogueing.

Each dance style, first demonstrated with gusto by each of the show’s five dancers, was in turn performed by us, the audience. The history of each was contextualised with a speech from the respective dancer, ultimately establishing Dancing Qweens as more of an educational workshop than performance piece. This approach seems to have emerged from Welsby who, in an interview with Archer, acknowledged the “queer cultures, plural” that need to be fostered and connected in their shared but distinct history.

This queer pluralism calls for the kind of interdisciplinary and multimedia approach that Welsby has taken which, although rough around the edges — a projected clip of our dancing backtracked by Queen’s ‘Body Language’, was dumped due to technical difficulties — regardless caused me to honestly reflect on what it means to be queer. As we all watched a supercut of queer dances on our phones (via Instagram no less), Valerie asked us to consider, “What makes a dance queer? Is it the dancer? Is it the audience? Is it what the dance is about?”

Watching this video, and the aggressive, macabre dancing that the show’s cast finished the night with, produced a feeling of pride, sadness and wonder. These dances are brimming with the painful history of being queer, and the finale to Dancing Qweens, with its strobes, smoke machine and techno, perfectly portrayed the darker places from which queer culture has emerged. Alone, this ending might have felt like a call to arms, but the final view of Valerie, her dancers and a selection of audience members — both queer and not — all posing defiantly, sent a message for a hopeful and inclusive future.

If Midsumma is meant to be a time not only to celebrate being queer, but to reflect on what that has meant, does mean and will mean in this world, then Dancing Qweens is pitch-perfect.

Dancing Qweens was at Dancehouse as part of the HOUSEMATE PROGRAM in collaboration with Midsumma Festival.

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