Jess Curtis has always been compelled to push himself to his limits. In high school he played soccer and football, wrestled competitively and competed in freestyle skiing, a predecessor to the extreme sport of snowboarding.
These days, as a performer/choreographer/director and cultural conceptualist, Curtis takes risks that are as much metaphysical as physical. With his troupe Jess Curtis/Gravity, he explores such questions as What do we think is beautiful and why? What is virtuosity? What determines how people see you? Do others decide who you are? Or do you?
These sorts of confounding, simultaneously abstract and concrete questions are at the challenging heart of Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies, which Curtis’ group will perform Friday and Saturday Wynwood’s Inukb8 Studio for the final show of the Florida Dance Association’s Winterfest. The event is co-presented by Tigertail Productions as part of its danceAble series of troupes and performers that turn traditional disabilities into a new genre of dance.
A sort of slow-moving carnival of performance art, absurd and gender-bending costumes and unexpected acrobatics, Non/Fictional Bodies is at the cutting edge of new dance and performance that challenge traditional definitions of beauty, virtuosity, theater and even identity. The performers include a German drag king (a woman who dresses as a man), a dancer on crutches and a circus juggler.
“It is very much about how we imagine our bodies,” Curtis, 49, says from his home in San Francisco. “Can it be a physical process?”
Curtis’ imaginative journey as an artist has been driven by his physical experience. In the small Northern California town of Chico he started dancing after his father paid for a month of ballet classes as a joke 17th-birthday gift. The adept, athletic Curtis fell in love with dance, but his stocky, muscular body made him a poor fit for ballet and traditional modern dance. So he turned to more experimental styles, such as contact improvisation, a form of spontaneous, inventive, often gymnastic partnering.
“I like things that make me move and sweat and breathe hard,” Curtis says. “Movement that goes into areas of risk.”
In the late 1990s he began performing and creating for Cahin-Caha, a small, experimental circus troupe in France that he jokingly calls “Cirque du Soleil on crack.” He was fascinated by the laser focus of circus virtuosity and its particular skills. “You’d find this person focused on doing one thing for five years, such as juggling seven balls or doing a no-hands headstand or balancing their tiny partner on their head,” Curtis says. He also began working with mixed-ability dance troupes in Europe, choreographing for performers who found unprecedented ways to compensate for the tremors of cerebral palsy or the loss of their legs. (One, Claire Cunningham, a virtuoso on crutches, is in Non/Fictional.) As with the circus, Curtis found that bodies and movements traditionally viewed as inferior or strange could, through another lens, become spectacular and beautiful.
All these experiences feed into Non/Fictional Bodies, bolstered by Curtis’ study of contemporary philosophy and critical theory and questions such as “What makes me who I am?” For Curtis, the answer is changeable and largely up to you.
“There is no essence of what I am,” he says. “It is the sum of all the things that you do that make you who you are.”
Curtis’ interests align him with artists such as New York’s Miguel Gutierrez (visiting Miami in March), a choreographer who breaks down boundaries between the stage and real life, or Taylor Mac, the cabaret/theater artist who takes drag to new expressive heights, Mac appeared in Miami’s Out in the Tropics festival last July, and his latest piece, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth, just received a rave review in The New York Times. He and Gutierrez represent a generation of new performers who incorporate conceptual questions about areas such as the nature of performance, along with rebellious identity politics and the glittery aesthetic of drag and nightclub work. Mary Luft, the director of Tigertail, co-commissioned Non/Fictional Bodies to bring that sort of cutting-edge sensibility to Miami.
“There’s a new movement, and it has a real intellectual component to it,” Luft says. “I find that electric, when the work challenges your perceptions. Miami needs more of that.”