Veteran choreographer and dancer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg is a serious artist, but she also has a wicked sense of humour. She plans to bring both of these parts of herself to the Firehall Arts Centre when her company, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, premieres Pants from January 17 to 20.
In a Zoom interview with Pancouver, she describes her newest production as a meditation on what it means to feel masculine or feminine—and all the different gradations in between.
“I identify as ‘she/her’, but sometimes ‘he’, because I’m also a drag artist,” Friedenberg says with a laugh. “You know, I look great in a moustache.”
She thinks that there’s great subversive power in comedy because through this art form, it’s possible to look at subjects that would otherwise be difficult to address. A bunch of characters show up in Pants, all performed by Friedenberg. According to her, they have very specific gestures, stances, voices, and ways of moving.
“We are all living in our bodies and there’s so much about how we live in our bodies,” she explains. “Like, how you dress, how you gesticulate, [and] how you stand. Do you cross your legs all the way over? Do you cross your legs with your ankle on your knee? Do you put your hands in your pockets?
“All of these things, when we look at them, are very gendered,” Friedenberg continues. “You can look at a silhouette of somebody and you can take a pretty good guess at what gender they’re performing or how they feel.”
Friedenberg intrigued by physical language
In everyday life, Friedenberg’s eye is often drawn to how people walk, sit, use their hands, or lean. If she’s riding a bus, she can spot those who sit with their legs wide apart in what’s sometimes called a “manspread”. She also notices those who try to take up as little space as possible. It makes her wonder what’s going on in their internal lives.
“I find it all so fascinating,” Friedenberg declares. “It says so much.”
She maintains that the first language is physical before any words are ever spoken. As a dancer, she believes that everybody would benefit from moving to their favourite song every day.
“I’ll give that as a prescription,” Friedenberg quips.
The dancer and choreographer insists that she doesn’t know anybody who fits perfectly into a blue or pink box. Yet when she was growing up, there was no common language to describe folks who were genderfluid or nonbinary.
“I would just put my hairband over my and sing with the boys and get laughs,” she recalls. “I think it’s an important thing for all of us to really look at and acknowledge that there aren’t just two choices.”
Fortunately, Friedenberg grew up in a home where there was plenty of discussion about different forms of expression. The British pop star Boy George helped shape her perspectives. And David Bowie was “very big in our household”, she says.
“My mother always had David Bowie’s haircut.”
Friedenberg’s love of dance began when she was just two-and-a-half years old after her mother took her to The Nutcracker. But she also retained a comedic touch.
“Once school started, I found the power in being a funny kid, which was not encouraged for the female-identifying,” Friedenberg says.
Deep dive into gender expression
Nowadays, Friedenberg feels that it’s up to everyone to evaluate their own biases around gender. She also feels it’s incumbent on people to create space for those who don’t fit into those constraining blue or pink boxes.
“This idea that there are only two options—it’s really sad,” she states. “It rarely exists in the natural world. We are diverse and we’re all individuals. It’s fantastic.”
Friedenberg unveiled a 20-minute work-in-progress of Pants at the 2022 Dancing on the Edge festival. Since then, she’s delved far more deeply into the subject with many collaborators—including movement director Kate Franklin, outside eye Josh Martin, and dramaturg Joanna Garfunkel—to expand it into a full-length production. Justine A. Chambers has helped with costumes and James Proudfoot designed the lighting.
“He can make light funny,” Friedenberg says. “How do you do that? I still don’t know but he does.”
Meanwhile, Marc Stewart created the original music and sound design. According to Friedenberg, there is more silence in Pants than in some of her previous works.
In addition, she conducted interviews with many others over the past three or four years to gain greater insights into gender expression and gender identity.
“My caveat is ‘I’m on-stage alone but I’ve got a team of people,’ ” she states. “There’s a lot of makers involved in this show.”
The Firehall Arts Centre will present Tara Cheyenne Performance’s production Pants from January 17 to 20. Opening night is on January 17 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit the Firehall Arts Centre website.