Inside The Heterotopia: Notes On Voguing With Beethoven

In celebration of Beethoven's 250th jubilee, Seeham Rahman explores how queer identity and ballroom culture reflects the composer's identity as an outcast in Emilie Norenberg's debut short film

Ball culture is ‘a celebration of [a] life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration’, remarks POSE’s Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, founder of the ball’s House of Evangelista, on the momentous FX television show depicting the ‘80’s New York ballroom scene. Such a narrative is not only housed in Ryan Murphy’s fictional world, nor solely in New York. It emerges with every gestural detail and sequin that adorns the bodies of those who step foot into existing communities worldwide. Director Emilie Norenberg wonderfully portrays this truth in her debut short film Voguing With Beethoven, presented by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra for Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th jubilee. The spirited dance film seamlessly conjoins the innovative gestures of voguing with the rich expression of Beethoven’s ‘String Quartet No.13 in B-Flat Major, Op.130: 2. Presto’. Though hardly four minutes long, the marriage of choreographed dance with the innovate and oscillating sound of the Presto displays the flamboyant energy required of both European high culture and ball culture, posing questions of history and futurity.

Even the film’s examination into queer identity is rhythmic, with the main character Karim’s heightened insecurities aligning with each musical crescendo and minor, spiky segment. When the audience first becomes acquainted with Karim, a young, assumingly queer dancer; Norenberg utilises a variety of calculated techniques to show his intense self-doubt and timidness. In the only scene with dialogue, Karim makes statements such as ‘You’re ugly’ and ‘You don’t belong’, which are then reflected by his therapist interchanging ‘you’ for ‘I’. The changing pronouns unveil Norenberg’s cognisance in how Karim’s identity is likely to have been negatively framed by others, strengthening self-criticisms. This interchange considers how societal narration affects the queer experience, however, feels slightly like an afterthought, piecing together a story otherwise depicted solely through dance. Other details, such as the focus on Karim’s side profile and use of shadowing, better portray his desperation to gain confidence. Particularly striking is when Karim’s muscles begin to unravel from the shadows as the music hums into pianissimo. A pivotal moment, the drone partnered with Karim’s unfurling body, presents the release toward him lauding his queerness without judgement.

As we become more acquainted with Karim, the gaze continues to be directed at how ball culture offers a site for the creation of self-love notwithstanding repression, with moments where he is embraced or decorated with scintillating jewellery by a fellow dancer. In capturing these loving gestures and also the cohesive movement of the dancers from the studio to the ballroom scene and outdoors, the dedicated support provided by ballroom communities is imagined. This mimesis, paired with contrasting music dynamics, presents how the unique coterie of ball-goers rejects any toxic othering – through opulent, encouraging performances as a form of protest to hegemonic propriety. Norenberg also reveals the intimacy between dancers, enabling the audience to envision the bewitching historic systems of queer kinship. Where queer people have required space or solidarity in crises, the chosen ball families have provided support. In turn, an affirming heterotopia is created, formed upon a counter-culture of queer celebration in place of societal prejudice.

Norenberg’s idea, too, of converging the ballroom scene with Beethoven is inspired by the composer’s similar experience as an outsider, but to aristocratic society. Yet, though his working against traditional conceptions of music shares some similarities with the non-normative nature of ball culture, the only link exhibited between both cultures is that of their shared pageantry. In beautifying the visuals, notably through the use of a stately, traditional ballroom as a location, a sense of aristocratic luxury pervades the film – as opposed to Beethoven’s commoner roots. This palace space is distinctive for the wrong reasons, namely because ballroom culture subverts architectural legitimacy; it does not need normative productions of space. Its continual appearance, privately and ephemerally in ordinary venues, embodies its politics of resistance. As a disruptive culture rooted in Black history, its praxis arose from a need for a liberating safe space for queer young people of colour outside of oppressive, white, social institutions. Norenberg does briefly nod to these underground roots, with Karim dancing in an underground tunnel or in a laser-lit, nightclub. There is also the addition of layered synthetic beats above the Presto, which mimic the house music guided atmosphere of ‘90s ballrooms. The spatial decontextualisation in pockets of the film, however, somewhat removes the historical subversion of place in ball culture. By locating the scene in the historically discriminatory space of a palace ballroom, the film to an extent, strips the scene of its alternative history as a safe haven for Black and brown bodies to cheer away a heavy-handed world.

Yet, true to the eccentric creative animation of ballroom culture, the zestful motions of voguing in the film are championed by the rousing swings from whisper to forte. The epic exchanges in the Presto are mirrored by the recoiling and angular expressions in which the feminine poses, flexibility and symmetrical precision typical of voguing are just as graceful or ferocious as the music. This is accentuated in a segment where the viewer is met with a small coda in the soundtrack, in which the instrumentation curtails harmoniously before the roaring end. The scene displays the quick switch between the gentleness in voguing to a fierceness with movements like the dip, more commonly known as the death drop – a striking backwards fall-like pose, signifying the end of a dance. Accenting this drama, the costumes worn reflect the grandeur of high fashion while staying true to the synthetic pomp of ball culture allure. From silk gloves and painted faces, to Karim’s classy, highlighted wig, the glamour mirrors the fashion of the ball – an ersatz feminine elegance, which is tied to the para-theatrical, fantasy world of voguers. Such imagery grasps how aesthetic devices in ballroom culture add to defiant movements.

Ultimately, in displaying a jollification that works as an oppositional force to the painful actualities of those in it, ball culture’s queer potentiality is honoured. Spectacularly shot on grainy yet vibrant 16mm film, the camera salutes the clandestine, gritty nature of the scene and visually stimulates the nostalgia of the community’s past, without erasing its multicolour palette. The film even ends with a passionate tribute to the inimitable luminosity of ballroom culture, through a dedication to ballroom ‘parents’ – the elders who provided the refuge and housed the laborious brilliance of the culture. Perhaps then, retrospectively, it should come as no surprise that voguing was matched with the sound of Op. 130 – a composition which was revealed only after much strain, and was deemed too unconventional upon creation. A fantastical sonic space could only ever be complemented with a movement just as avant-garde.

Voguing with Beethoven from Emilie Norenberg on Vimeo.

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