Deven P. Brawley was spotted on the evening of his 31st birthday cavorting in public with a bunch of strangers. Well, wait. They weren't strangers to him. In fact, they're members of his d'shire dance, billed as San Diego's first all-male dance company and founded nine months ago. We, on the other hand, wouldn't know them from Martin van Buren. Brawley, the company's artistic director, says his seven-member troupe is pretty much personae non grata in San Diego, but he said that works to his advantage.
If you're going to unveil the only local group of its kind, trotting out several unknown quantities is probably a smart bit of marketing. If they're any good, male dancers are the total rock stars of their craft, and they're in demand accordingly. Look at guys like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev and even Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire—every one of 'em was a specimen, cutting across social stereotypes and bending artistic convention as they pirouetted all the way to the bank. By the same token, Brawley said, each of d'shire's principals has been signed to a contract beyond the troupe's inaugural season.
So then where've they been all this time?
“Unfortunately,” Brawley said, “the [producing] artists that are in San Diego haven't sought out all the men that are actually here. The men in my concert aren't the normal faces in San Diego, so it just goes to show that if you really look in the pockets of the dance community, they're there. I've found in San Diego that there is a large majority of men. And sometimes, you need to learn to work with what you have. That, for me, was getting all the males out of the different pockets into one central area where now… other people can start to see them.”
Hence on ONE, the first show in d'shire's first season, held Nov. 17 at the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre in La Jolla's Jewish Community Center. The installment, co-presented by the Patricia Rincon Dance Collective, may have played before a little more than only half a house—but when you consider that the Garfield seats about 450, you're talking a pretty substantial crowd for a dance event.
And there really is a hook to the male presence onstage. The moves and throws and lifts were angular and busy and efficient, challenging the patron to discard preconceived ideas about dance's fluffy underbelly. The brawny “And Away They Go,” with its male-oriented working-stiff theme, was a total hoot. Dancer Kevin Ho scored one for short guys through his remarkable work in the stream-of-consciousness “Lovable Rouge.”
And in a minor stroke of political genius, Brawley set a reference point for male expertise with the inclusion of one simple element—a female guest artist. Lara Segura, who's been dancing around here since age 7, was exceptional in “The Tise That Blind” and “7th Year,” and she contends that her inclusion was anything but a concession to genderist expectations.
“I don't think Deven hired me for this project because I could lift and throw the men,” said Segura, 26, “even though I can. That's not what he needed me for. He hired me because he needed an actress. He needed somebody female who could emotionally get his point across. You hire the best person for the job based on what they're good at. It helps in making your casting decisions.”
“When we go to major shows,” Brawley added, “it's usually one man in a sea of women. The man gets spotlighted among all these women. That's kinda nice, but I wanted to flip it. I'm not trying to alienate people or be sexist and get that kind of [male agenda] rap for this. I wanted to open doors but still work with my personal artistic goal, which was an all-male dance company.”
That's been his dream since starting at Palomar College in San Marcos 13 years ago and spending the last 11 dancing in places like Switzerland and Mexico and coast to coast in the U.S. All the while, he's taken stock of the good news coming out of the San Diego dance community: The opening a year ago of the beautiful Dance Place San Diego at Liberty Station; the establishment of Dance San Diego, the community's online publication; the increase in the number of touring companies that put this city on their destinations lists; the international inroads culled by City Ballet of San Diego, which now routinely performs the by-commission-only works of famed choreographer George Balanchine.
Meanwhile, the good ol' boy/girl climate threatens to taint these accomplishments, fostering a complacency that eventually swallows companies whole. For all its trappings, Brawley contends, San Diego dance is a closed shop. “Ten years ago,” he explained, “there was a real connection [between companies] in the dance community. Over that time, it's completely dissolved. We go to too many auditioned events that are precast. Company directors too frequently choose to use the same dancers and hold auditions when technically they only have one or two spots available. Dancers get pocketed into groups, and there no longer seems to be this cross-reference between the companies anymore. The professionals are always dancing with certain people, and the up and coming are always stuck in some other pocket.”
But won't an all-male dance company, which is exclusive by definition, further polarize the climate? Brawley doesn't think so. Appearances by guests like Segura, he said, are designed to mitigate that threat—and in any event, the vision for his company is exclusive to him, unencumbered by the power structures currently in place.
“My comment to my dancers,” Brawley said, “is dance like nobody's watching; don't worry about technique, where other choreographers say hit your marks, be strong, be virile.” With on One, “we all got to kind of push ourselves and go in different directions that we're not always used to.” And that, he concluded, is the kind of iconoclasm, male or otherwise, it'll take to burst the network bubble. Find d'shire dance on the web at www.dshiredance.org.