I meet Monica Gillette and Gary Joplin in a Zoom call on a Thursday afternoon; I’m in my kitchen, they’re in their own homes. I want to talk to them about the work they carry out, in particular the projects they have been developing in recent years connected to the themes of gender and the role these play in the discourse on diversity per se and (which is particularly interesting) in relation to other areas, such as that of illness.
Gary and Monica have been travelling through the world of dance for years, they are both from the United States and live in Freiburg, Germany. Gary is a director and choreographer, but also a “somatic coach”, and these practices come together in the projects he creates and leads. Monica likes to call herself a “dance activist”, because for her, she tells me, “it is very important to know and develop practices that have an impact on social change”. They met by first collaborating on a project aimed at people with Parkinson’s disease, and by jointly carrying out the projects “Die Krone an meiner Wand” (literally “The crown on my wall”) and “Grenzland” (“Borderland” ). The first is a movement and dance project aimed at women touched by the experience of cancer, in an intergenerational group where each participant has become an emotional sounding board for the experiences of the group and the participants. From here, and in particular based on discussions with audiences following the performance, “Grenzland” was born, a project that is also linked to cancer but aimed at a male-only group: getting it started was not easy. Monica and Gary had to deal with different types of resistance because they were proposing doing work involving the body and dance that was aimed at a male-only group. This made them realise that they also wanted to explore gender issues through their work. These efforts and discoveries were also part of the development of the project: Gary tells me that one day, faced with an exercise that involved physical contact between him and a participant, the man’s reaction was, “I can’t do it! It’s so gay!”
This moment gave rise to a discussion in the group about the relationship between gender and the meeting of bodies, and how the participants had difficulties with the exploration of contact between men, based on the absence of a physical relationship with their fathers. Dialogue and confrontation through work on the body is a practice often used in their work, where, they tell me, “It is important in our artistic and human research to bring taboos to the stage, such as that of illness or gender.” Hence the project “The 3rd box”: in 2019 the German Constitutional Court approved the possibility of ticking a third box on documents for gender, not only the “male” and “female” box, but also one labelled “other”. Monica and Gary then decided to bring together an international group of young men and women between the ages of 17 and 27 to investigate this issue: what does it mean to be able to tick a third box? What are the opportunities and problems that follow? Those who participate in the group have different orientations and gender identities: people who are transitioning, who are non-binary, as well as heterosexual, cisgender people. When I ask what the most important thing is they have discovered while working with this group, Gary replies that for him it was important to confront people who were transitioning with the subject of bureaucratisation, and how much the legal steps to “become who we are” involve a definition by others of our identity: “this is not a point of arrival, but of departure,” he tells me.
Monica tells me of one day when a participant, who had always presented himself as a cisgender man, asked the group to call him by a name other than his given name, by one he chose himself: listening to the stories of people who chose their own names had allowed him to question what he wanted to be called and to reappropriate his own identity. This is a project that allows participants to be allies, of course, but it also provides a space to explore how gender issues affect each of us personally, and to try through dance to incorporate issues that open up to transformation. “The 3rd box” was supposed to open five weeks after the lockdown began in 2020. That wasn’t possible, but Monica and Gary started a collaboration with the What You See Festival (Utrecht) and Boulevard (‘s- Hertogenbosch) and created online workshops titled “The Anatomy of Togetherness”, where they continue the journey begun in person and which some participants of the group also took part in. “And what are your predictions for the future?” I ask them. They smile. The idea is to debut in early April, even though the prospects are not the best. In the meantime, the important thing is to keep a channel open, to cultivate the relationship with the group of “The 3rd box” in order not to lose the bonds created and the spaces of freedom achieved by working together.