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Secrets Under the Bleachers

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A scene from Josh Peugh’s ‘Bleachers.’ (Karen Almond)

Dallas choreographer premieres piece on queer sexuality. 

By Josh Inocéncio

From rural southern New Mexico to the ballet stages of South Korea, Dallas-based choreographer Joshua L. Peugh brings a wellspring of personal experience and stylistic experimentation to his work at the Dark Circles Contemporary Dance company.

And while Peugh has long explored tensions between gender roles in his work at Dark Circles, this spring is the first time he’s choreographed and presented a piece that centers on gay sexuality. As part of Dark Circle’s Spring Series, Peugh and his company premiered Bleachers, which looks at the confusion gay teenagers navigate as they explore queer desire. For the May premiere, I traveled to the space they use in Fort Worth at Texas Christian University to see the piece and chat with Peugh.

Josh Peugh (Brian Guilliaux)

“Frankly, it’s terrifying. I had quite a bit of anxiety about premiering Bleachers,” says Peugh. “All these contradictory feelings. But it’s my story, so it can be told in an authentic way. And should be touching. It was hard and scary for the dancers, too, to invite parents or students from the dance studios.”

Trained as a ballet dancer from the age of three, Peugh, 33, studied both dance and English literature during his college years at Southern Methodist University. But after relocating to South Korea to dance for the Universal Ballet, Peugh’s choreographic interests migrated to modernist and contemporary forms as he trained with Ohad Naharin, a guest choreographer from the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, Israel.

“I wanted to do work that felt a bit deeper—that wasn’t so pyrotechnic and virtuosic,” says Peugh. “All the work I was seeing [in Korea] that interested me was making me question myself and humanity. I was ready for a change. So I left the ballet company, started teaching kindergarten for a year to keep my visa, and founded the company there in South Korea.”

And Bleachers does not shy away from these probing questions, as Peugh and his dancers confront first fumbles and awkward exchanges of lust, love, and shame. Set among high school-aged boys wrestling with emerging feelings for each other in what could be locker rooms, sleepovers, etc., the four male dancers dance both by themselves in isolation as well as intimately together. Drawing inspiration from his own experience growing up gay in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Peugh weaves together a narrative that displays the boys’ questions and experimentation about themselves while never offering a firm solution as to how they will handle their identities as adults—which enriches this piece that seeks to share this struggle with the audience for queer and straight viewers alike.

“Movement is the most basic form of human communication. And so it should be accessible to everyone,” says Peugh. “It’s a language for humans to speak and tell stories. But the challenge with Bleachers was that it was just movement. I thought I would need a text, so I originally thought about monologues, sound clips, or visual imagery like pornography on the wall.”

Ultimately, Peugh abandoned text and relied completely on movement. And this case, the absence of any kind of text allows the audience to piece together this journey with the boys. In an intimate scene, danced by company members Cody Berkeley and Chadi El-Khoury, the characters messily remove each other’s shirts and begin to play with sexual positions, based either on something they have seen or heard before, but probably have never done. The result is blunt representation of adolescent sexuality and all the figuring out that has to happen, particularly for gay teenagers that do not see themselves in sexual education courses or media.

And for Peugh, this is just the beginning.

“I’m still trying to figure out all the shame and embarrassment myself. In my experience, it’s not something you can just turn off,” says Peugh. “I’m really close to my family, I love my hometown, and I have conflicted feelings about going back to sex education. I don’t have any clear answers. I don’t ever want to finish a dance completely resolved.”

For Bleachers, Peugh hosted a talk-back each evening. The night I attended, a woman who identified herself as a family friend to Peugh’s parents (and who also happens to have a gay son), noted that while the piece made her “uncomfortable” at certain moments, she began to grasp parts of this journey that Peugh and each of the dancers had likely gone through as gay men confronting their identities. After the talk-back, she walked up to each of the men and thanked them.

“The work must speak in a way in which she can understand it, too,” says Peugh.

While Peugh needed to leave his conservative roots in Las Cruces in order to thrive as both an artist and gay man, he has no regrets about his upbringing.

“Las Cruces is a beautiful warm place, even though it’s a really conservative town,” says Peugh. “But the struggles there have given me the tools and the material to tell the stories I want to tell. I don’t know that I’d take this dance home to New Mexico and expect a good reception. But maybe.”

Several of Bleachers’ most beautiful moments come directly from Peugh’s adolescent experience in Las Cruces.

“Friday nights were family nights. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere with our friends, but people could come to our house,” remembers Peugh. “So all of my friends would come over to our house. And after my parents went to bed, we’d stand out in the front yard, and you could see the stadium lights shining on our front yard. Those late night talks with friends lit by stadium lights play a part in Bleachers.”

As to the future of Bleachers, Peugh is hardly finished. This summer, he enters the next season for his dance company with more male dancers, and he plans to expand the piece. In addition, he plans to tour an excerpt of Bleachers to a festival in New York City this fall. And he hopes to launch a grander tour of the whole piece to other cities, including Houston.

“You know, I didn’t even realize I was gay until my best friend said he was gay and had a boyfriend. It took seeing that to even understand that that was a possibility,” says Peugh. “Maybe [with Bleachers] we can change something for somebody, maybe they got to see men interacting in a way that made sense to them, gave them a piece of power.”

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