Activism in the studio: Sean Dorsey’s two weeks of wisdom

“THE MISSING GENERATION” illuminates the forgotten tales of gay and transgender hardship during the AIDS epidemic

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Dorsey leads his cast into new movement material. DREW PERLMUTTER/THE BATES STUDENT

The cast has been learning multiple lifts during the rehearsal process. DREW PERLMUTTER/THE BATES STUDENT

Dancers in Dorsey’s cast learn a lift in rehearsal. DREW PERLMUTTER/THE BATES SUDENT

“Bootylicious” blasts on the stereo. Dancers stretch and chatter quietly amongst themselves. Finally, the man of the hour comes in and calls the rehearsal into order.

Who is this man? Sean Dorsey, a charismatic and lighthearted choreographer come to Bates to share his lovely energy with the Bates’ Repertory Styles and Repertory Dance and Performance courses.

Dorsey, a transgender San Francisco native, has nationally toured his emotional and tender works. Most recently of these are three pieces on the history of gay and transgender individuals throughout the past century. Now at Bates for a whirlwind two weeks, he is setting a portion of one of these pieces on students, “THE MISSING GENERATION.” The title refers to a whole generation of gay and transgender individuals lost to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“I chose to set some of ‘THE MISSING GENERATION’ on the students because some of my goals for the project include to educate younger people about the early AIDS epidemic. Most young people have no idea that during the 1980s, when HIV first appeared, that we didn’t even know it was a virus or how it was spread for over FOUR years!”

As a part of creating this piece, Dorsey interviewed members of the gay and transgender communities and conducted research to learn more about their experiences during the epidemic. He found harrowing tales of hope, grief and perseverance, and used the interview audio clips as part of the sound score for the piece.

As one of his goals, Dorsey hopes to create accessible modern dance pieces that are relevant to an uninformed observer. To achieve this, he uses individual narratives from the LGBT community and theatrical dance choreography to tell a story that all audiences can relate to. From his experiences touring the piece to historically conservative areas, Dorsey recalls incredible conversations he inspired with community members surprised and moved by the stories his work told.

Dorsey was not always a dancer. Before taking his first ballet class in his twenties, he was an activist first and foremost. He derives much of his subject matter from those early days, and encourages activism with his works. In his words, “In this era of social media, sharing posts on Facebook and hitting ‘like’ is a good start to contributing toward social change — but we can’t stop there. We have to get off our phones, meet together, take to the street and take actual action.”

At Bates, Dorsey’s positive energy and experience are not taken for granted; his piece is one of the more coveted pieces in which to be cast. Back in the studio, laughter erupts after rehearsing a complicated phrase with the up-tempo music. Dorsey responds with positive feedback and encouragement, and then continues to add on more material. As he demonstrates, he comments that “this movement was not made by a 40 year old!” and giggles resound as the group descends to a crouched position.

When the group practices the whole piece to the sound score, Dorsey’s musicality and attention to detail shine through. The movement, though simple, is perfectly timed and matches the frantic mood of the music. Jerky shrugs and pedestrian shapes make the piece more relatable, thus elevating its impact on the audience.

Dorsey’s relationship with Bates is only growing stronger; two years ago, Bates Dance Festival Director Laura Faure co-commissioned his work “THE MISSING GENERATION.” Now back to teach modern technique and set a portion of a piece for the second time, Dorsey proclaims, “I absolutely love it here! The dance department has an exceptional culture of openness, inquiry, curiosity and radical inclusion. Their staff are extraordinary.”

Luckily for Bates, Dorsey is already planning his next visit. The way he uses personal accounts of historically ignored populations has propelled him to world recognition and exclusive fellowships, and Bates dancers are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work with him.

Don’t forget to see Bates dancers perform a section of “The Missing Generation” in the Back to Bates and Fall Dance Concerts!

 

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