When Dance is a Drag: A Conversation with Emma Wilson

LoveDANCEmore journal editor Samuel Hanson, a Utah native now based in New York City, speaks with Emma Wilson, a dance artist from Houston who completed a BFA in Modern Dance at the University of Utah, minoring in Environmental Studies as well as Portuguese and Brazilian Studies. She is the resident choreographer and co-director of the Deseret Experimental Opera Company. This article represents the beginning of a new format for the loveDANCEmore performance journal. Each month they’ll be posting a new interview, essay, poem or other piece of original creative content related to dance-making in Utah. 


Samuel Hanson: Tell me a little bit about what you’re working on these days.

Emma Wilson: For a lot of last year and the year before I was consistently performing as LadyPrince, who has another alter ego named Yung&Bizzy. I think those have come to a close for a bit, but they’re still with me as I work now. I have become attached to having some kind of persona or name. So right now I’m working with Ew! The Dancer.

SH: As in E.W., your initials, but also eww, yuck, the dancer…

EW: Yes. I’ve been wanting to maximize the potential of those initials for a while.

SH: I like that a lot.

EW: I’ve had some feelings of frustration with dance that I am trying to own.

SH: What’s your biggest frustration with dance?

EW: One of my mentors came up with this metaphor I’ve been obsessively telling everyone about. I guess it’s a similar frustration to the one most people have with their parents or whoever raised them, as in, I am perpetuating these things. With dance, there’s this inferiority complex we have as an art form. The metaphor my mentor presented is that dance has built a freeway to the destination of legitimacy already claimed by institutionalized music and visual art. But there are a lot of people that can’t get onto the freeway if, say, you have a different body type, or you’re non-binary, or you’re not a gay white male that fits a certain type. Anyway that’s something that really resonated with me. As I’ve been repeating it, I’ve walked it back a little, there is maybe more room for difference in the dance world that the analogy initially suggests, but I think there’s still a lot of truth to it.

SH: I do, too! It’s interesting to compare the mythologies of, say, the early years of modern dance in NYC with all the masochism and cult behavior with the academically oriented world we live in now. Sometimes I feel like we’d be better off if we hadn’t colonized academia.

EW: Maybe academia wasn’t really the key to growing as an art form. But again, saying “as an art form” performs this strange operation of turning everyone into this unified front–

SH: The so-called avant-garde–

EW: Yeah…

SH: So, tell me a little bit more about where these characters come from.

EW: LadyPrince was born in the bedroom, in role play with a partner. At some point I guess I decided to bring them–they go by them and sometimes he– into the larger world. Last year was really exciting because I got to do a LadyPrince series at this monthly queer dance party called Moth Closet that was started by Bradley DeHerrera and Emmett Moxie. I had this epic of LadyPrince that lasted about 30 minutes in which Yung&Bizzy greets everyone and flies everyone around the room as a flock of birds who get launched into space to LadyPrince Planet, where Yung&Bizzy transforms into LadyPrince, with many costume malfunctions which explore the identity crises I have when I’m getting dressed in the morning.

Anyway at this monthly dance party I was able to do smaller episodes of the LadyPrince story, which is highly influenced by The Little Prince. I was interested in putting more femininity in that (my interpretation of that word) and just basically making it more gay.

SH: In a way, the metaphor your mentor posited could also apply to a certain academic version of queerness. One of the things I like about your work is that it has a queer aesthetic that doesn’t feel dressed up in academic drag. You’re not militantly going on about the cyborgs. I relate to your vulnerability, which I feel is often absent from that discourse.

EW: Actually, I recently read The Cyborg Manifesto and there was a lot more humor in it than I expected. I am pretty inspired by that part of the–– I actually hesitate to use the word “queer” because it gets used so much in a way that renders it meaningless to me. It’s this field of academia that is now legitimate but the word itself, for me, when I originally learned about its history, it felt subversive and constantly changing. But I feel like academia has calcified it or something. I am wondering about the word queer. Lately I’ve been more inclined to just call myself gay or use LGBTQ even though it’s more of a mouthful. Queer is becoming like that freeway. You have to be thin and androgynous and have money to go to school to learn about queer theory…

SH: Was that something you encountered at the U in dance? In my day, we weren’t there yet in terms of queerness being either visible or trendy…

EW: Yeah I think that’s part of why I’ve been getting into doing drag, albeit non-conventional drag. There wasn’t so much visibility for that sort of thing at the University. I think that’s changing now partly because queerness is trendy. I remember in dance history getting really excited about Valeska Gert and Jill Johnston and other small whisperings of subversion in American dance history. Gert danced in cabarets in New York and scandalized everyone by performing an orgasm and other parts of reality like tropes of the working class that weren’t visible. I am really attracted to the literalness of that, as much as I love Merce and Release technique, etcetera. Even people like Kurt Jooss…

SH: Who inspires and feeds your intellect outside of dance?

EW: Who feeds me? Let’s see.

SH: That’s a terrible question to ask anyone.

EW: No, no, I go to sleep at night trying to answer that hoping someone will ask me. But the crickets start chirping now! Musically, and a propos of cyborgs, I’ve been listening to Janelle Monáe’s new singles that seem to be riffing off of Prince and Michael Jackson. And also Prince Rama. They sound a lot like Animal Collective but they’re all gals. I saw them here a couple of years ago and the lead singer had a voice altering mic that deepened her voice–– a sort of lo-fi cyborg effect. It was kind of surreal to see this typically feminine looking person with such a deep amplified voice…

Also Laurie Anderson is my idol. And I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson.

SH: Oh god, I love both of them!

EW: I took Re-Imagined Anatomies with Nate Dryden at the U. And he had us read an excerpt from Winterson’s Written on the Body. That’s an example of a moment when the University didn’t totally erase me. Right now I’m reading Sexing the Cherry

SH: I have that in the giant pile of books by my bed! I haven’t gotten around to it yet but I’ve read Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Art & Lies and The Passion.

EW: I started The Passion but it didn’t snag me.

SH: It’s very much a period piece about France and Venice around the time of Napoleon. I read it on an airplane in one go. It’s always a luxury to get to read for eight hours without being interrupted by other people or phones.

EW: I’ve been reading a lot of comics for that reason. They’re easier to sneak more of them in in smaller periods of time.

SH: How do you get around Salt Lake?

EW: I had to leave my car in Houston this past winter. The engine was flooded, or at least that’s what the computer inside of it thought. In the meantime, I’ve been biking a lot more and pretending our public transit works as well as the subways in New York.

SH: Actually the subway system here is falling to pieces lately. But what’s going on in Salt Lake?

EW: Tonight there’s this weekly dance party called Operation Gender Juice. It happens at the Art Hub on 100 South and 600 West down the block from Metro and the Sun Trapp. It’s in the Arts Alliance Building with Samba Fogo and the SLC Capoeira group. It’s a small room, it almost feels like a middle school party at someone’s parent’s basement. It’s very intimate and strange. The walls are carpeted. Tonight’s theme is John Waters. Hopefully there will be a whole fleet of people dressed as Devine.

SH: What John Waters character are you going as?

EW: I just watched Multiple Maniacs and I really like the religious lesbian character in that who makes love to Divine with a rosary. I’m not sure I want to wear a turban like she does though. We’ll see what happens.

SH: Are there other parties like that in town?

EW: There’s a lot of party planning drag groups. I’m a part of Forbidden Fruits organized by a prolific ‘drag-thing’ and dear friend, Meli Penfold aka Dream Meli. She also started Operation Gender Juice, but delegated each Friday to a team of drag and performance art people. There were the Bad Kids…

SH: I saw them once at the now defunct Burt’s Tiki Lounge, where my friend Alex Ortega used to sometimes play. It was down on State Street by the old Sears.

EW: The Moth Closet happens down there too now. At the Beehive Social Club at 666 State Street. The Bad Kids disintegrated into a few different contingents. The Haven of Hues (HoH) is one. The Bad Kids used to host this night called Weirdo, which didn’t have a through-line, it was just a mishmash–– HoH hosts it now. There are all these names but a lot of them turn out to be comprised of the same people. There is another group that I don’t know as much about that performs at Triangles, a divey gay bar. They’re called Those Bitches, they’re more theatrical but they do some impressive stuff in a classical drag and lip-syncing vein. It’s a new set of people to me so that’s exciting.

SH: Do you have peers working along the same margins of drag and dance like you?

EW: Something what I love about drag is that people get into it without so much training. It can sometimes be working class in a way dance usually isn’t. Meagan Bertelson did do a piece with me. She was The Rose in LadyPrince. There are a lot of people with a theater background but I can’t think of anyone with a dance background, or, complex…

SH: What about other dancers from your era? Is Amy Freitas still making work in that space on second south just west of thirteenth east by the gas station?

EW: Yeah. We’re still jamming on Monday nights. There’s less contact these days just because of the size of the space but Amy’s definitely still rustling things up. I am a part of a collective called Moxie Arts. Last year Breeanne Saxton and Eliza Tappan presented a lovely piece with us. We also featured a solo by Yaya Fairley who recently moved back to the East Coast. She is sorely missed here.

I take class with Ballet West and RDT. Hannah Levine recently asked me to drop in on a class with her up at the U. But there aren’t a ton of other options for class for contemporary dancers in Salt Lake.

SH: It’s funny because we talk about that a lot in regards to what might be improved about the infrastructure of dance in Utah. But here in New York, I rarely take class, and when I do I hardly ever see people I know. It’s just not a major source of community the way I think people think it will be. I do much more dance socializing at shows. Maybe that’s just my experience.

EW: There is a contact jam happening regularly on Thursdays at Sugar Space. Cole Lehman is facilitating it. He just recently, in the last couple years, found contact and is really excited about facilitating this jam. I hope he doesn’t burn out because I feel a similar connectivity with the people in that room to what I felt taking class in college. Michael Wall played at one of the jams and he seems excited to do things outside of the University. I really miss Wachira Waigwa-Stone.

SH: Did he move away?

EW: No but he’s pursuing a master’s degree right now at the U so he’s not doing as much with Amy. I actually just went to one of his recitals. He did “Blues for Gilbert” by Mark Wentworth and a bunch of other later 20th-century percussion music pieces. He played vibraphone, marimba, snare drums, exiting after each piece. It was very formal, but very strong. He’s one musician that consistently works with dancers.

SH: He’s brilliant and a lovely person. We were in CDT together as kids. I’m glad to hear he’s still around Salt Lake. Are you working on anything else we should know about?

EW: I do intend to keep working on A Solo is a Lonely Dance, the piece you saw when you were last in town at 12 Minutes Max. I’m also a part of Desert Experimental Opera. We’re in the process of becoming a nonprofit and we’ve conceived of a show called Non-Profera where we use the paperwork for applying for nonprofit status as the libretto for the opera. It might be excruciating, but we’re digging in. The dancers in DEXO are Jasmine Stack, a recent grad from the U, Meagan Bertelsen and Carly Schaub. Some of the librettists are a part of The Wanting To Die Poetry Club. We’re sort of artistic cousins.

SH: Do you think you’ll stick around in Salt Lake?

EW: To some degree. I have this seasonal job here as a community garden coordinator at the downtown library that allows me to leave Salt Lake during the worst part of the winter. I will be here seasonally indefinitely. There are a lot of people I am excited about working with here. Even though there’s not a lot of money around there’s a lot of interest and catharsis to be had.

SH: So you’re going to be one of those fancy people that splits your time between Salt Lake and wherever…

EW: Yes. Like you! You summered in Salt Lake last year when we worked together on Those With Wings.

SH: True enough! Liz Ivkovich is still making work in Salt Lake and I guess Alysia Ramos is now pursuing her academic career in Brazil.

EW: There’s so much interesting art going on in Brazil. I minored in Portuguese and I did a study abroad in Rio and stuck around to work on a farm in the mountains to the west of the city for a while after that. I didn’t do much dancing down there but I did learn a dance called jongo; it’s a celebratory dance that can be done solo or in partners. I took a summer workshop in Colorado from this Brazilian dancer named Rosangela Silvestre. She has a background in Horton but also works with the orixas and other parts of Candomblé. She’s incredible, she teaches really dynamic movement phrases and then sings while people move across the floor–

SH: It’s amazing when people can sing and dance at the same time. It really puts the rest of us to shame. Are you familiar with Jasmine Hearn– actually she’s from Houston, too, no?

EW: Yes! She’s an idol of mine. The freeway mentor I mentioned earlier is a teacher we shared named jhon stronks. He’s an inspiration to me; he has a drag alter ego named Miss Understood. Like Jasmine, he works a lot with text and singing and dancing. He’s someone who maybe accidentally tipped me off to drag. He directed this pre-professional company Jasmine and I were in. He taught us modern dance basics but also has a rich personal practice I feel lucky to have been privy to.

He’s still wrestling with things in Houston. I got to spend time with him this last winter. He’s working on this ‘70s-themed disco piece in which all of the performers are disco goddesses more or less. He’s also into astrology. I hope to get to be in some iteration of it if I’m in town. He works a lot in art galleries in Houston. There are oil barons there who fund the larger institutions but it’s hard to survive there on the margins. He’s in residence at this new space called the Rec Room in downtown Houston that I hope survives. He also teaches at the University of Houston and Rice, so he’s able to present work at those places too. I’ve been seeding the idea of bringing him out to Salt Lake.

Another Houstonian to watch is Koomah. They put on a show called the Rainbow Unicorn Cabaret. Winter of 2016 I performed a LadyPrince piece there and jhon actually happened to be the MC that night–– we were delighted to finally be in a ‘secret’ gay underground together. Dream Meli was moving back to Salt Lake City from New Orleans and stopped in Houston to perform as well.

Anyway Koomah does a lot of activism on behalf of trans and non-binary people. They’ve been published in I think Cosmo magazine with advice on such issues as how to have sex with people with very small phalluses or with intersex people. Aside from that they also do a lot of art-making and performance. I saw them perform with this pop-up group called the Feral Choir. They do all kinds of wild things with their voices: singing, screeching, something that sounds like throat singing. They even do an experimental improvisational form of conducting.

SH: Do you see anything like that going on in Salt Lake?

EW: Nichelle Van Portfleet’s partner and composer, Casey Van Portfleet, did something very similar at 12 Minutes Max recently. Eliza Tappan and Jordan Simmons and a few other dancers vocalized and moved under his direction. I feel grateful for programs like 12 Minutes Max and the public library in general. I wouldn’t have a job OR as many artistic outlets without it! I feel strongly about diversifying creative outlets and I’m committed to keeping the groups I’m a part of and the ones I’m not a part of alive as much as I can, fostering growth and flux and all of those platitudes, making them more than platitudes. I am in love with the creative community here.

SH: Salt Lake City and the dance community in general are both lucky to have you.


This article is published in collaboration with

Categories: Dance

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