Staging Aging in Queer Style

Josephine Leask*

Untitled. Conceived and performed: Emilyn Claid. Collaborators: Florence Peake, Heidi Rustgaard and Joseph Mercier. Guest Performers: Aiden Taylor and Jack Warren. Designer: Shanti Freed. Music: Planningtorock and Jimmy Webb. Dramaturgy: Martin Hargreaves. London Producer: Sara Trist. Production Manager: Rachel Shipp. Premiere: 23 November 2022 at The Place Theatre, London. This version: 23 September 2023 at The Place Theatre, London.

Rest your head on my shoulder. Give me your weight. Let your body yield. Can you do that? Can you allow me to take your weight? We’ll dance—let go, I’ll hold you.

This time, I’ll give my weight to you, rest on you. When you can’t hold me any longer, free your arms and let me fall. The ground is not so far away. Can you do that?  Can you let me drop?

(Emilyn Claid, Untitled, 23 September, 2023)

At the end of her 75-minute solo show Untitled, performed at The Place, London, Emilyn Claid asks her audience if they will accept gravity and let go. In the context of her show and lifetime of work, giving herself permission to fall anticipates a final “bowing out”. As she retreats upstage, the sound of nostalgic tunes on her funeral playlist, offered earlier by members of the audience, lingers on. She performs with care, rationing her energy, unafraid to stop and be still. Bathed in a pool of light, Claid dances in silence, absorbed yet so very present. In these special moments, alongside the fun and games, we see her vulnerability, her letting go and slowing down.

Claid retreats upstage in fading articulations of soft, sinuousy movement at the end of Untitled, toured in Toronto 2022. Photo: Dahlia Katz

Claid sketches out her movement repertoire for her solo, constantly shifting through gesture, step and pose, working with contrasting dynamics and emotional states. Pulled-up, linear, positions collapse in somatic releasing. Squatting in a low, angular second position, upper body tilted and hands resting on her thighs, she surveys the landscape, head askance from a position of power. She performs a stealthy lesbian on the cruise one minute, a frail old woman the next; an ego-intoxicated diva, and then a floppy, broken puppet. Sometimes she drifts a little longer in one particular moment, taking real time to unpack the memories of an erotic touch, a fall from grace or a taste of glory. She is both thrilling and humbling to watch.

Claid begins with an ending, a solo that evokes through gesture and postures fleeting memories from her life, past and present. Toronto 2022. Photo: Dahlia Katz

Inviting us to join her in an intimate evening in which she places her aging, queer body under our scrutiny, Claid reflects on her life and prepares for her future. She makes reference, with an action, a prop, anecdote or a piece of music to her extensive career as a ballet dancer, London-based choreographer, co-founder of the experimental X6 dance collective (1970s) and a gender-queer independent artist; an emeritus professor, writer and Gestalt psychotherapist. Untitled, originally performed at The Place in November 2022 and developed into a longer solo for September 2023, was created by Claid’s desire to perform again, after a gap of 22 years.

She asked choreographers Florence Peake, Heidi Rustgaard and Joseph Mercier to each choreograph sections in collaboration with her, interwoven and layered with her own material to form a seamless whole. Their quirky, distinctive artistic voices shine through creating a richly textured show that is visually striking in imagery, narrative, movement and design. Wearing her 73 years like a well-worn yet revamped costume she plays out a lifetime of both professional and personal transformations as mother, lover, lesbian, grandmother and partner, centred around three significant props: a lavish fur skin, with a pink, tattered lining created by Shanti Freed and Antonio Psaila; a lump of moist grey clay, and a theatrical headdress, splendid with branches, antlers, foliage and birds.

Emilyn Claid emerging splendidly in her skin of fur and flesh-coloured latex. London 2022. Photo: Henri T.

The electropop dance music of Planningtorock begins—Claid switches into cruising gear, striding across the stage with desiring purpose. She creates her own queer dance floor, brimming with endless possibilities and dreams, embodying its language and codes. Clad in black leather trousers and sleeveless top, tattoos decorating her arms, shaved head and killer cheekbones—she’s a formidable presence. Suggestively leaning against the wall with one leg bent, she observes her prey. With small suggestive pelvic tilts, precise hand gestures and a seductive smile, she strikes a series of poses in this triumphant celebration of queer being. Later, she performs again to Planningtorock’s insistent dance beats, emerging splendidly in her skin of fur and flesh-coloured latex. Lovingly stroking the sensuous material, she manipulates the skin to become a death shroud, the pink membrane stretched taut  across her face or draped over her shoulders like a shaman’s cloak; finally as an erotic object of desire, spread out like a flayed animal hide before her. Crawling over the fury contours she sniffs and caresses it before dragging the skin possessively off-stage, between her teeth.

Emilyn Claid manipulates the skin to become a death shroud, London 2022. Photo: Henri T.

As well as infusing Untitled with her contemplative groundedness, Claid brings frivolity and playfulness, performing camped-up routines, tough-in-cheek virtuosic ballet steps and comedic text. Adorning herself with the headdress, she asks us to guess the significance of this intriguing extravaganza. She tells a story about her former days as a member of the chorus in the National Ballet of Canada, where in a production of Cinderella she performed as a walking candelabra. Here she describes her humiliation at being given such a static role as “a non-dancing extra, a human candelabra” but also expresses her gratitude to the costume department for introducing her to ballet’s “camp side.”

Adorning herself with the headdress, Claid asks us to guess the significance of this intriguing extravaganza, London 2023. Photo: Henri T.

Claid informs us that she wants to rehearse a new queer version of the Balcony Scene from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. She explains how this was prompted by a long-standing, unrequited desire to play the role of Romeo, as a hopeful young ballet dancer when she watched Nureyev dance Romeo from the wings. She invites an audience member to play the part of Juliet, talking them through their part, coaxing them to express their own “Julietness.” While giving instructions, she embodies a furtive and impassioned Romeo swishing her cloak, queering familiar ballet steps and poses with ironically camp interventions. Her Romeo moment climaxes in a hip-gyrating hula hoop display that replaces Nureyev’s “huge excitable ballet leaps.” Guest dancers Aiden Taylor and Jack Warren help her create a suitably lush, Veronese scene as young lounging Italians, accompanying her in a tightly executed, yet restrained, commercial pop routine. Claid embodies both comedy and tragedy as she reclaims the role for herself, yet also displays flashes of her young, ballerina self, disappointed by failed ambitions.

Taylor and Warren join Claid in another delightful vignette, providing the youthful and decorative framing (“her living props and side-kicks”) to her maturing Diva. Their cool, expressionless faces as they effortlessly execute virtuosic sequences create a brilliant antithesis to Claid as she weaves in between them like a shifty cartoon villain, gesturing dramatically to Donna Summer’s “Someone Left the Cake out in the Rain.”

Jack Warren (left) and Aiden Taylor (right), providing the youthful and decorative framing (“her living props and side-kicks”) to Claid’s maturing Diva. London 2023. Photo: Joseph Mercier

Although Claid has played the game of professional success to which she gestures in Untitled, her real interest lies in foregrounding queer failure and its partner shame as a non-conforming queer, creative strategy. To help her do this she engages with the pile of moist, oozing grey clay, sitting lumpen, lifeless, sexless on its moveable table. This inorganic matter might signify Claid’s body—the thing that has accompanied her all her life—that grows, shrinks and falls apart, that makes her hurt. She labours to drag it across the stage; smears her face with its gooey particles, gives it therapy, pulls bits off, or kneads it into erotic shapes. Finally embracing the clay as her lifetime of shame, she immerses her face fully into its soft, damp folds, emitting muffled mutterings about queer and white humiliation.

Untitled is a constellation of events, presented not in any chronological order, that reflects on lessons learned, truths revealed, stories unfinished, loves and losses. Although her work nods to endings and closures, Claid gives us hope in her ability to accept, channel uncertainty and perform change. Leaving us to celebrate her extraordinary life, touching us with her humour and bravery she teaches how to give in to gravity, reassuring us that the ground is never far away.

Claid immerses her face fully into the soft, damp folds of the clay emitting muffled mutterings about queer and white humiliation performing in Untitled, London 2022. Photo: Henri T. 

*Josephine Leask is a London-based dance critic, lecturer and PhD researcher at Central School of Speech and Drama. Her PhD research explores the contribution of New Dance Magazine (1977-1988), created by the X6 collective, to the creation of radical and feminist intersectional dance criticism and reviewing practices. As a critic, she has written about dance for a range of mainstream press and dance publications including Dance Tabs, but currently writes for Dance Art Journal and edits Resolution Review which profiles and mentors emerging writers alongside critics.

Copyright © 2024 Josephine Leask
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