Monday, February 12, 2007

What Would Brian Boitano Do?

It was dark. A drag queen’s voice suddenly blared through the speakers. “Miss honey. What the fuck? Get your faggoty ass out here.” Brian Boitano wasn’t ready to come on stage. He was getting into character.

After a few moments, and a little more chiding, thumping techno burst on. Lights projected against the far wall. Brian came out. He bore thick, black eye shadow, a radiant smile, a bleached faux-hawk, shiny black briefs and black, leather platform boots. He donned the Canadian and American flags like a cape.

He draped the flags on either side of the floor and walked center stage. It was February 20th, 1988. Calgary, Canada. The Olympics.

Boitano danced. He flexed. He shook his ostentatious bulge. He sniffed lines of speed down his arm. “Ice,” he cried. “I love ice!”

It was the “Battle of the Brians.” Boitano pulled off three perfect triple axels and finished with his signature—a stunning 10 seconds of spread eagle. Canadian Brian Orser stuck seven triple jumps but faltered on his early triple flip and opted out of his final triple-axel. He did a double-axel instead.

The scores were close. The judges gave Orser a four, Boitano a five. Boitano tossed his head back. He just won the gold medal for ice-skating.

He ran to his beautiful wife.

The voice boomed in again. “Girl, I know the truth about your relationship,” the black queen, Boitano’s self-appointed fairy godmother, said.

Boitano froze. “But I’m a heterosexual,” he said. “I have a wife!”

Uh, uh. Godmother knew him.

Boitano shrugged, then fell into a sly smile. “Nobody knows how good the Battle of the Brians really was,” he revealed. A luscious synth bass line and a ramming beat came on. A video-tape started rolling in the background of the two Brians having sex in a hotel room.

About thirty people watched, sitting in black folding chairs, in a room of about 800 square feet. It was outfitted with small stage lights, speakers and a network of cables hanging from a low ceiling. There was no stage. It was the performance space at Brooklyn Arts Exchange, or BAX, in Park Slope.

Brian Boitano, really, was Michael Burke. Burke, a performance artist from rural Idaho in his early thirties, lives in Red Hook, directs the La Mama/Trinity college summer program in Manhattan for experimental theater and dance during the fall, teaches at Trinity College in New Haven, Connecticut during the week, and has been working on “APPROPRIATION/approach-fag-nation,” his foray into the deviant life of this ice-skating world champion, since November.

“At the moment, I have way too much material,” he told the audience, in a discussion session after the show. The piece began as an improv one night at Dixon Place, a performance space on the Bowery. He had just read Boitano’s biography, Boitano’s Edge: Inside the Real World of Figure Skating. “A terrible book,” Burke said, but rife with material: it compelled him to write a few sketches of Boitano’s gay-boy alter-ego. “It’s all Brian Boitano,” he told me.

Burke has been dancing since 1996, and doing dramatic performances that incorporate scenes, music and video since 1998. He writes by chewing the cud, so to speak. “I write every day, and I generate material every day. I sort of hover over topics,” he said. Mitchell Poland, a director who has worked with Burke since 2002, told me, “A lot of it is about otherness. A multiplicity of character.”

Mitchell recommends Burke’s 2006 piece “Pussy Trouble! The Secret History of Gilgamesh & Ekindu.” Using clips from an independent film of Burke having sex with a much older woman, he cast himself a new age Gilgamesh, a king of legendary proportions from around the 26th century B.C., believed to have built protective walls around the ancient city of Uruk.

At this night’s discussion session, Burke, his hawk flattened with sweat, wore black jeans and a black zip-up hoodie over his costume and sat in a metal folding chair. The woman sitting to his right, Jessica Cerullo, started the show with “Miracle Tomato.” In a read sweat shirt and jeans, she opened the piece on all fours, tended to wander towards the audience and address us directly and eventually produced both a tiny tomato and a foam tomato from her shirt. All the while, she mused on the tomato’s bearing witness to the brutalities of life.

In the audience sat three hip, vaguely athletic dancers. They had given an artfully bizarre, methodical and symmetric dance sequence, dubbed “A Howling Flower.” Marya Warshaw, BAX’s executive director, had seen the piece before. “They’re revealing themselves more as humans,” she observed. “It’s not easy,” said Nami Yamamoto, their director, a diminutive Japanese woman with a heavy accent, who was sitting to Burke’s left.

After ten years of solo autobiographical work, Burke told us, he didn’t want to be the main character anymore. So, he plans to bring in a real fairy godmother, Brian Orser, and two others. “With time,” he said, “they will come.”

Burke rehearses Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays either at a space in Carrol Gardens, at BAX or at La Mama in Manhattan. Over the next couple of weeks, Burke will carve into the rest of his Boitano material—a mess of writing and dialogue, more techno and video, and who knows what else.

“It’s going to change a lot, by tomorrow,” he told me after the discussion, with a titter.

In March, he performs “APPROPRIATION/approach-fag-nation” again at Dixon Place. In April, he takes the act to Green Mountain College, a small liberal arts college in Poultney, Vermont. In May, he performs in Berlin. Between then and now, it’s uncertain what transmutations the show may go through. The intrigue certainly begs that old question—what would Brian Boitano do?

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