How Do You ‘Queer’ a Pop Song?

An excellent tribute to a legendary gay dance party raises awesome gnarly questions.

Carlos Armesto of Theatre C. Photo: Dirty Sugar Photography.

I’m, like, stoked about Retro Factory, a series of retro-themed dance parties coming to NYC. Hosted by Theater C, Zach Job and Chad Ryan, and presented in association with Daniel Nardicio Productions and the nonprofit advocacy organization Long Island City Artists, Inc., the first event, simply called 1983, happens on Fri., June 15 at The Plaxall Gallery (5-25 46th Ave.) a 12,000-square-foot Queens warehouse. This inaugural event is conceived as a tribute to 1984, the legendary gay dance party that was held at The Pyramid in the East Village forever — until forever ended in 2011. For 1983, there are guest DJs and drag queen Chelsea Piers, but two other elements piqued my attention.

First, there’s 1983‘s promise to immerse the audience in the action, much in the way that two musicals — The Donkey Show and Here Lies Love — did back in the ’00s and early ’10s.

Second, there will be “queered” live recreations of iconic ’80s music videos, choreographed by such multi-hypenates as Breton Tyner-Bryan, Sidney Erik Wright and Shiloh Goodin. How, I had to ask, do you “queer” a 1980s pop song? The production didn’t want to provide a full set list, but artists may include Madonna, the Go-Gos, Wham!, A-ha, Janet Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson and the original rick-roller, Rick Astley. Isn’t that list queer by definition? Then again, what is queer? Who is queer? Can anyone be queer or queered?

And who wouldn’t want to see this video re-created (and queer or queered) on a stage:

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I had a chance to ask Tyner-Bryan, Wright and Goodin some questions, and to include Carlos Armesto, founding artistic director of Theatre C, which is dedicated to creating hybrid theatrical experiences. (These answers are lightly edited for sense and space.)

For more information on upcoming Retro Factory events, click here. And whether you’re queer or not, Happy Pride!

And now, 5 questions that Breton Tyner-Bryan, Sidney Erik Wright, Shiloh Goodin and Carlos Armesto have never been asked:

Sidney Erik Wright. Photo: Evan Zimmerman.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

Sidney Erik Wright: I choreographed burlesque routines for Magic Trick, a play that Caps Lock Theatre did on Theatre Row a few seasons ago. One reviewer clocked how “there was a fun catharsis with Eric’s surprise boy-lesque number…it seemed that he was pretty bad at it and it was wonderful…there was that wonderful moment of him removing his pants and how awkward that is.” I love that the critic noted the intentional awkwardness because, in my work, I always try to make the movement organic to the character. While technique and grace are wonderful tools, they’re not appropriate for every project.

Shiloh Goodin: I recently presented a piece where the dancers were the subconscious of the main character. Without telling my audience this, someone asked afterward how I decided to bring the many parts of the main character into physical being around him. It was thrilling to see that they “got” it.

Carlos Armesto: In 2003, I appreciated when a producer came up to me when I didn’t think I should be directing a production of Spunk because it was about the African-American experience and I knew nothing about it. He told me, “You are exactly the person to direct it: you are a gay Latino; you are in the community of ‘the other’; you have had struggles that, although they may not have been like the African-American struggle, allow you to empathize with the history portrayed in the piece. It’s your job to know that world, and honor it in your work.” Those words were very inspiring and empowering. For months I immersed myself in every work I could find in Black theater — from the “Chitlin’ Circuit” to August Wilson. In focusing on honoring the spirit of [Spunk writer] Zora Neale Hurston as honestly as possible, the show ended up being one of the best productions of my life, and one of the most well-received by everyone, with a full African-American cast that hit it out of the park! That experience has informed every piece I’ve done since.

Breton Tyner-Bryan: I’m still waiting. I’m not making work to make people comfortable, so it hasn’t happened yet. I straddle various worlds, from ballet to burlesque, cabaret, immersive and musical theater. Oftentimes people don’t know where to place my hybrid background.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

SEW: “You always come up with the kinkiest shit. Where do you get your ideas?” Maybe it’s because I refuse to shy away from the full spectrum of humanity and will happily dive into and elevate topics that often go unexplored and underrepresented? And maybe by asking that question, you just revealed how boring and vanilla you are.

SG: I have had someone think that we were all just making it up on the spot because there is no way “you could remember all of that.” It was an education moment — for them.

CA: “Does ‘C’ stand for ‘Carlos’ in Theatre C?

BTB: “Why haven’t you changed your name?”

Shiloh Goodin. Photo: Matthew Stocke.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

SEW: “Do you still perform?” Honestly, I’ve struggled with this one. The answer usually changes based on the audience and how I want them to perceive me. At the end of the day, though, I think it’s important that we collectively stop defining each other as one thing. People are multifaceted and function in a variety of capacities depending on the needs of the moment. While performing is not a priority for me, I will happily step back onstage or in front of a camera if the opportunity presents itself. I don’t think artists ever stop art-ing. That skill-set stays with you and informs your present self.

SG: I can’t really think of anything — I’ll try to keep pondering!

CA: I’ve had weird experiences, but not weird questions.

BTB: I’d say there aren’t any. I love when people take the time to discuss my work with me. Art is about diversity and the variety of an individual’s experience. I love hearing how people perceive my work. Every conversation is an opportunity to share, discuss, consider the work from a different point of view, personalize it and give it away to the people.

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Tell me about creating “queered live re-creations of iconic ’80s music videos.” When was Madonna, like, not queered? What will queer her now?

SEW: I’ve been having a number of conversations about EID (Equality/Inclusion/Diversity) and how I can use my privilege as a white male to create spaces for non-white, non-male performers. In so many cases, the entertainment industry casts a straight person to “play gay.” So, for Retro Factory, I’m very interested in assembling queer female dancers to perform my piece (A-ha’s “Take On Me”) and let these women portray a lesbian love story. Art should be personal, so I’m thrilled to create an opportunity for LGBTQIA+ people to embody their own stories.

SG: Those artists were always pioneering and offering a creative home for the queer community. But I like to think we have come so far in the last 30 years that we can stretch farther, making it not only implied but necessary in the very fiber of what the songs are about. I am tired of seeing hetero leading couples with gay supporting characters or side stories. For me, this is the opportunity to flip that script, allowing allies to be the backup while we feature a gay couple’s romantic journey. It’s time for fairy tales, chick flicks and musicals to regularly feature queer couples, and not always in some tortured version. Everyone deserves movie-magic happy endings.

CA: Our objective to is to reimagine the music videos that were already embraced by the LGBT community in a way that represents us directly: putting two boys as the lead dancers in “I Had The Time of My Life,” or a lesbian couple persecuted by the police in “Take On Me.” We want to show these anthems of our struggle as directly inclusive, as opposed to metaphorically representing us…

BTB: My initial reaction is: “labels are for canned goods.” However, in today’s world, queer is an important word — and platform of visibility — while celebrating ownership, originality, safety and support for our community. “Queering” refers to the past and present colliding as we honor the essence of self-expression and love.

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Breton Tyner-Bryan. Photo: Stephanie Crousillat.

How do you do live recreations of iconic videos while letting people groove? How will people know when “performance” ends and “club” begins?

SEW: You’re asking a logistics question. Trust your artists. Retro Factory has assembled a talented pool of professionals who are more than capable of directing focus where it’s needed. There will be more than enough groove to go around. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

SG: I personally will be using my ensemble to help “create” the space, moving bodies, being assertive with the crowd to move them and draw their attention, a la Fuerza Bruta. I hope the design of the club will allow for a lighting change, possibly a slight musical pause between songs so everyone has one second to go “What is happening?” and then realize its a song everyone knows, and everyone is looking in a certain direction…

CA: The videos will be staged as flash-mobs. The ambience will abruptly change — lights, sound — and our dancers will guide our audience where to stand so they can enjoy to the fullest.

BTB: Without giving too much away, I can say I’m honored to be working with artists featured in FX’s Ryan Murphy show Pose for this project, including Harold Butler, Justin Torres, Karma Stylz, Jason Rodriguez, Albert Taveras and Luz Guzman. I approach all my work with the camera in mind, adapting choreography to best suit the space or set, with an awareness of how our audience will experience it. They can have great moments up close or far away. Theater is everywhere, and interaction is key, whether as a voyeur or with a one-on-one experience. Detail is key from costumes to makeup, and I think 1983 is a great reminder of how immersive entertainment transcends.

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Why did the NYC club scene die? Can we resuscitate it?

SEW: Two words: real estate. The popularity of clubs made those neighborhoods into culture hubs, jacking up property values and displacing the artists and young people who would actually attend events and make the area chic and trendy. It’s easy to club until 5am or 6am when you live around the corner and can stumble home. It’s much harder to go all out when you face an hour-and-a-half commute (thanks, MTA). To bring the scene back, promoters need to start creating events in the boroughs. Abandon Midtown to the business professionals. Target the young people who keep the city vibrant and creative. Fragment and fracture and create events in unexpected places so the new generation can stay local.

SG: I’ll pass…

CA: Dance clubs weren’t just a place to go and dance, they were a place to meet people — hook up with a stranger, meet a date, enjoy time with friends, express yourself. Clubs were a space that allowed people who felt lonely to feel surrounded by a community of hotties, queens, nerds and misfits. With the advent of dating apps, the stakes of a physical meeting — with its unpredictability, difficulty and magic — are lessened. It is now more convenient to shop around online for a hookup or date than to meet that special someone in a space without knowing their status, measurements and sexual preferences. You know more about what you’re going to get now than before, and the communal experience now seems more electronic than verbal. Clubs allowed for a sense of risk, excitement and the unknown. It died because people were interested in ease rather than adventure.

I think we’re going to hit a bubble in the interest of online connection, and evolve into having more of a balance. There are some bars where dancing is allowed, and small dance clubs are opening up. Thank God for the House of Yes, Bedlam and all the other places where dancing is welcomed! I hope Retro Factory can be part of that evolution.

BTB: Anything that’s exciting is a hybrid of creativity, structure and expression. It’s not about how much money you spend, location, status — it’s always about the people who bring their raw essence of freedom and that’s something you can’t buy. When humanity gets off their phones and on board with one another, enjoying the colorful variety we all create together, then a club scene can thrive. It has and will always be about the creative force that makes NYC addictive, iconic and one of a kind.