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Bam! Pow! Save Democracy Now!

6 Degrees Dance fights back with Pop Demo.

Chaos and Color: Left to right: Haley Lee, Mia Pham, Michelle Reyes, Travis Prokop, Carlos Perez, and Davis Stumberg. (Photos by Pin Lim)

“I will fight you with glitter, I will fight you with color, I will fight you with humor, and you cannot win. That is the heart of this show.”

The show in question is Pop Demo, the latest evening-length dance theater piece from 6 Degrees Dance. Toni Leago Valle, the show’s artistic director who recently spoke with OutSmart, is referring to the theatrical firepower she has marshaled to combat the legislative forces currently targeting women and queer communities.

Other than last year’s 20-year retrospective of her work entitled Score, Pop Demo is Valle’s first full-length production since her circus-themed Never Again in 2018. “I think of Pop Demo as a sister project, but it is different in that it’s national,” she says. “Never Again was about activism and the Texas Legislature. This is more about how propaganda is used to deceive the public.”

For this new work, Valle left behind the colorful world of the circus for the colorfully absurd world of comics and editorial cartoons. Using characters as big as 1980s hair who are dressed in primary colors, Valle uses theater, modern dance, and aerial silks to present a world that has tilted off its center. It’s a show with a point of view, which should have audience members laughing at wild antics one minute and then losing themselves in thought about the precarious political moment we’re living in.

Like most of the show’s cast, Mia Pham first got to know Valle at the University of Houston, where Valle teaches. Pham, who is more at home with subtle and abstract modern dance, enjoys rehearsing Valle’s edgy choreography. “It’s pretty fun to do something so bold,” Pham says. “[How often] can I unabashedly say, ‘This is who we are, this is what we support’”?

A Queer Aesthetic

Valle grew up in the southeast suburbs of Houston, an artistic kid in a conservative environment. She turned to theater in school, but even there she didn’t feel like she fit in.

Then she discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show. More than the movie itself, she found the camp classic’s outrageous fans to be her people. “Here I am, this little 14-year-old white girl from the suburbs,” she recalls, “and they just took me under their wing.”

Becoming immersed in the Montrose of the 1980s as a teenager shaped her outlook on life as well as her artistic aesthetic. The married mom thinks of herself as straight, but those years roaming up and down Westheimer nevertheless solidified her love for the community. “It gave me a lifelong love of queer people,” she says. “They have always been my family. They were the first people who stood up for me. They were the first people who would fight for me.”

At least half of her Pop Demo cast is queer, and part of the rehearsal process is allowing time for open conversation around the issues in the show. She brings her views of women’s issues and feminism to the stage, but when it comes to LGBTQ issues, she allows her queer cast members to shape the production’s message. “I can’t speak in that voice, so I have them guiding me,” she notes.

Several of her cast members speak with appreciation about this aspect of the show’s development. “I find myself really supported by her and the environment she creates,” says Tempest McLendon. “I’m a Black lesbian artist who has tattoos and piercings. I feel like she [creates] spaces for me to put my own experiences into the work.”

Travis Prokop, who is working with Valle for the first time, puts it this way: “As a gay male in the arts—and there are lots of gay men in the arts—we rarely get to be ourselves onstage. In rehearsal and in class, I think our queerness is definitely celebrated, but that’s not the case onstage very much.”

Valle cites Prokop’s observation as the catalyst for a love duet between two men, a quiet moment in the show. “While these are cartoons, there are also these behind-the-scenes reality people,” Valle explains. “So I have a lovely duet that just shows two people who care about each other.”

Valle also pushes for gender-nonconformity in this show, something that cast member Haley Lee mentions: “Even though I don’t identify as a queer person, what I love about dancing in Toni’s work is that I do feel like I’m able to exercise my masculine as well as my feminine qualities. I’m not a very girly girl, and I feel like I’m very fluid in Toni’s dances. It’s really nice to get to do that.”

Love Duet : Davis Stumberg (r) and Travis Prokop

Cartoon World

Popular culture, politics, and democracy are central themes in Pop Demo. Valle began researching editorial cartoons as a way of fighting the propaganda that’s currently eroding government. From there, she expanded to harness the power of comic books and animation to build her off-kilter environment. Aerial dance is another technique she uses to create this unique “cartoon world.”

Aerial dance incorporates trapeze, aerial silks, and other equipment to allow the performers to leave the ground, taking movement into another dimension. Valle has been training in aerial dance for a number of years, and used it extensively to create the circus atmosphere seen in Never Again. For that show, she trained her dancers as she developed the aerial choreography they could perform. For Pop Demo, she is teaching less. “This is the first time I have five people out of seven that train in aerial,” she says enthusiastically.

Aerial is also a way Valle found herself in Cartoon World. She doesn’t just wedge aerial into a show. She explains, “What I do is instead of saying ‘is it needed?’ I say, ‘what world can I create in which it’s absolutely necessary?’”

Hence her creation of a 1920s speakeasy in a world that defies the laws of nature. “Not every [section] has aerial in it, but it definitely adds to the [cartoonish] spectacle. Without aerial, it would be incredibly grounded. I want the idea that the world is tilting. When I have silks hanging, it allows me to make walls move. It allows me to redefine spaces. It’s integral to the piece.”

To create an engaging speakeasy environment, audience members can actually sit around tables on the stage by purchasing premium-price tickets. “We’re involving the audience into the piece a lot more,” says veteran 6 Degree dancer Michelle Reyes. “Instead of just watching what she’s trying to show and share, the audience is actually in the middle of it all.”

Carlos Perez and Michelle Reyes

More than Dancing

Valle isn’t just protesting the current political turmoil through her art. “She is an activist,” says Davis Stumberg, a dancer who Valle first put in the air for Never Again. “You see her out and protesting. She’s not putting on a show to put on a show—it’s what she actually believes in. I enjoy that she lives her life that way.”

Cast member Carlos Perez sees Valle’s activism lending layers of added meaning to Pop Demo. “I think it’s going to be a show that people find very funny and entertaining, but at the same time it makes you think,” he says. “You’re there for the humor and entertainment, but it’s [also] putting these subconscious thoughts in the back of your head: ‘You need to be aware of this. You need to be thinking about this.’”

Valle expects to take some time off from dance-making in order to focus her activism on the 2024 elections. She’s anxious to put more time into the causes and candidates that have influenced Pop Demo. Clearly, the artistry she employs onstage to fight for democracy is not her only tactic.

“At the heart of all the fun and games, and all the bright colors, is that deeper message of how much we’re being deceived,” she concludes with an artist’s optimism. “I believe people are fatigued and tired of politics, and that’s one of the weapons—to constantly be throwing propaganda at you until you’re too tired to react. We need to be able to shut the noise out. The culture wars—that’s all noise! It’s meant to make us tired and despairing. I refuse to see the world that way.”

WHAT: Pop Demo
WHEN: Seven performances, September 15–17 and 21–23

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Neil Ellis Orts

Neil Ellis Orts is a writer living in Houston. His creative writing has appeared in several small press journals and anthologies and his novella, Cary and John is available wherever you order books. He is a frequent contributor to OutSmart.
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