Antonio Ramos and The Gang Bangers: Thirsty Mind, Love & Starvation Sitting in a Lonely Tree
June 2 – June 5, 2016
I only just made it to Thirsty Mind, thanks to an extra show added on Sunday evening. I was coming back from a trip and arrived straight from the airport. The night before my flight home, I’d traded sleeping for staying up dancing at the Conga Club party in Lisbon, Portugal. I didn’t know anyone, but I wedged myself onto the packed dance floor between hundreds of beautiful people (including sailors in hot pants and bearded mermaids) and just danced. For hours. I felt at ease in my body as my temperature rose and the music passed through my skin. And I felt at ease in the anonymous crowd—new faces, yes, but also the same rituals. I didn’t feel afraid.
The massacre that took place on Latin Night at the gay club Pulse in Orlando, Florida, in which forty-nine dancing bodies were ruthlessly gunned down, has shaken us queers (in different ways and to varying degrees, to be sure). One thing that has become evident, beyond the social ills of homophobia and gun violence, is that not everyone understands that dancing with each other, in queer spaces, is a practice that has made us who we are. It is also a practice that has kept us alive. The gay club and the gay bar has always been a place for us. By no means has it been perfect, but we have regenerated ourselves and found each other there—both within and across various social positions. In queer spaces, we can temporarily reject and transcend the limited imagination of the outside world.
Thirsty Mind features seven performers, including Ramos: five men and two women—although I would venture to say there is hardly much masculinity on display. It is the performers’ bodies and individual ways of moving that distinguish them more than their gender assignations. Ramos creates an expansively queer range of possibilities for his cast. He writes: “We feel, we cry. I want to show the humanity of this—no matter what gender we are, we sweat and smell, we get dirty—but we also can love and be tender.” Rebecca Wender’s measured progression as she seductively advances along the floor. Miller’s athletic high kicks and extensions. Alvaro Gonzalez’s repetition of “disculpa” throughout the show. Ramos’s springy movement, never stopping, bouncing, led by music. This feels queer, as does the constant shifting and melding from individual to duet to group.
The show is irreverent and exuberant, with the performers sometimes directly engaging the audience, and other times, falling into trances or otherwise distanced performative states. In them I find witches, tweakers, camgirls, snakes, go-go dancers, radical fairies, boxers, free-lovers, and of course dancers—as in, people who love to dance. Before any bodies appear onstage, three small screens on the back left wall of the theater feature Ramos dancing naked in a sandy, wooded environment—his arms extending over his head, his tightly curled long hair going its own ways. This video, along with another of him dancing on the floor in what looks to be his home, sets a meditative and pastoral mood. Three performers materialize in the dark of the stage with their backs to us, amid a soundtrack of bird sounds. As the light brightens, I realize that they are not naked, as I had first thought. One at a time, starting with Wender, they repeat a shared phrase at varying timings, replacing each other in space. The first set of costumes consists of a band of spandex covering a part of a limb—an entire leg, beginning just under the butt and extending to the ankle, a forearm, or the lower leg. It is more accessory than clothing; their nudity is accentuated rather than hidden by the costumes.
The movement becomes more percussive, flaring occasionally into a strut or a short burst of improvised fierceness. Then, the performers begin to sigh, the sighs soon turning into snarls—the warning signs of animals, slithering, prowling. McDougall and White-Ayón circle each other like dueling witches, and speech enters in fragments. “Terror into the hot sun!” A knot of snarling and muttering bodies crawls to the front of the stage and right up into the risers, climbing on top of, and over us, and between our legs. “Close your mouth, you mouth-breather!” Luke Miller even flicks his tongue into a cup of white wine. The encounter feels especially “intimate” because the performers are basically naked. That is to say, there is a kind of implied social contract that the naked bodies of others will not come into contact with one’s own without one’s permission. But Ramos throws that contract right out, an act of defiance that places him within a lineage of queer performance that disrupts the illusion of a division between “us and them.” He forces a bodily confrontation with the queer body, a body marked as “dangerous” in its capability to transmit bodily and moral corruption.
Suddenly, Ramos bounds onto the stage with a “Hey guys! Welcome to the show!” and proceeds to explain, in Puerto-Rican inflected Spanish and English, that he will need our help for the next section. All this occurs while he wears a disco-ball inspired motorcycle helmet and a costume that displays (thanks to a well-placed circular cut-out) his penis. We are handed bags of cherries, and instructed to spit the pits at his body while he sings a lovelorn ballad: “El Amor” by Yolandita Monge, karaoke-style, lit by audience participants who follow him around. The taste and texture of the cherries reminds me that I have a body. The act of spitting involves a transmission of our bodily matter to Ramos’s own. The audience is no longer static but now a shape-shifting organism—necks extended and cheeks puffed out, small cheers and laughter arising after a particularly well-aimed shot. The spotlight shines on Ramos’s ass as he bends over in front of us.
White-Ayón opens the new segment with a solo set to house music. All at once, the space resembles the inside of a crowded club, a scene that becomes purposely awkward when she ignores the rhythm and eventually turns her back to the audience. The second set of costumes is quite comical: each performer wears a different version of Ramos’s outfit, featuring spandex and tulle that presents genitals, asses and breasts, often via cutouts. Faces are streaked with bright makeup and glitter.
The rest of the performance has the quality of barely-controlled chaos. It strikes a mystical tone when the group gathers together and sways until White-Ayón drops back, seemingly unconscious, into their waiting arms. It is rambunctious and playful when Miller and McDougall climb over each other, reciting a dialogue in what is close to unison. The text is studded with slight deviations in content and timing, however, and McDougall tracks Miller’s face with his phone—attached to a live-stream—as they twist and tumble. The performers then take turns recreating Ramos’s taped improvisations. Ramos and Wender perform a duet in unison across the stage, with bodies in between them. These unison duets accumulate; at times there are three happening at once. As Ramos and Darrin Wright cross the front of the stage with tiny sideways steps, their penises happen to be at eye-level for those sitting in the first row—yet another body-to-body encounter for the audience.
From the frenzied layers of music arranged by Miguel Guittierrez emerges Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Soon, McDougall, too, looks lifted out of the club, but he is also twerking with such intensity that he may be recalling a tweaker. Miller has gone to the back wall, manually turning the lights off and on to produce a low-tech strobe effect that reminds me of no-frills drag shows. Finally, the six performers begin to repeatedly interrupt their dancing with sudden collapses of an ankle, accompanied by outbursts of complaint and pain. Ramos reenters in a magnificent pair of stilettos to join them in the staggered chorus of “Ow!” There is something very touching about this anticipation and partaking (campy as it is) of Ramos’s pain that the others perform.
The lights flicker on and off, and the last image I see is Ramos swaying with abandon, his head thrown back in ecstasy. It’s as if a flash has ignited and now the image of that perfect moment will keep forever. Thirsty Mind, Love and Starvation Sitting in a Lonely Tree is a very serious title for a piece that is so much fun. It makes me go back to the videos of Ramos dancing alone. What was he experiencing when he filmed those sequences? And why were the performers trying to learn his movements throughout the piece? I wonder if the distance from the tree branch to the ground is the hardest to travel. The distance between solitary exploration and inescapable isolation sometimes requires other bodies to break through. What a beautiful practice: to embody the movements from someone else’s lonely tree, to bring them into a collective body.
Part of the reason I came to Thirsty Mind is that I wasn’t ready to go home to my lonely tree. I wanted to enter into and join another queer realm—a place where flamboyance and fantasy flourish and, in their appearance, become fact. I was brushed up on and fed cherries. In return, I gave my spit—isn’t that a form of promise-making? Isn’t spit-swapping a queer practice of participation? A participant is a “partaker, comrade, fellow soldier.” In these militarized and gun-infected times, coming together, showing up for each other, whether in the club or street, is a defiant and celebratory action. Partaking is caretaking. I am feeling more than ever how we must look out for each other—and learn from each other, always widening and extending our coalitions. Performance trains us to deal with the unexpected. Performance rips apart and rearranges realities. But the worlds that performance creates only become real when we are there to co-create them. Let’s be there.
Choreographer: Antonio Ramos
Dancers: Luke Miller, Rebecca Wender, Darrin Wright, Alvaro Gonzalez, Sarah White-Ayón, Rennie Lachlan McDougall, Antonio Ramos
Music Composer: Miguel Guittierrez
Costumes: Claire Fleury
Set Design: Sam Gassman
Lighting Design: Amanda Ringger
Video Installation: Peter Richards
A small portion of this text was initially written for Hand-Written Note(s): Movement Research Festival Spring 2016.
ContributorJaime Shearn Coan
Jaime Shearn Coan (he/him/his) is a writer and editor who holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of the chapbook Turn it Over (2015) and co-editor of Marking the Occasion (2020) and Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now (2016). Find him at jaimeshearncoan.net or on twitter: @jaimeshearncoan.