It’s easy to forget that love exists. But Sean Dorsey Dance’s new production, The Secret History of Love, unearths stories from LGBT history that never made it into the history books. Based on archival research and stories collected through Dorsey’s national LGBT Elders Oral History Project, The Secret History of Love sets out to prove that love is real, and that it survives under even the harshest of circumstances. This weekend, on Saturday May 12, FundArte’s Out in the Tropics Festival opens with The Secret History of Love. We spoke with Dorsey recently about the project, and his immersive encounter with LGBT history.
Tell us about this production.
The Secret History of Love is a full-body dance theater show that explores the ways that LGBT people managed to find and love each other in decades past. And it’s really exploring history and themes that every person on the planet can relate to. Every person on the planet wants to be loved, to love, and to find love.
You did archival research — what sources did you find?
This show is the culmination of a two-year research and creation process and during that time, I conducted a national LGBT Elders Oral History Project where I interviewed and recorded oral histories with LGBT elders and asked them about their lives, their growing up, and their experiences of finding community. But especially of finding love. Falling in love, passionate love affairs, steamy liasons, lifelong partnerships, timid first love.
Where there any surprises in the stories?
When I did all my archival research and conducted these interviews with elders, I was really joyfully surprised at the passion and joy of managing to find love and happiness even among the very intense and often violent discrimination. Stories emerged about these wonderful secret underground clubs, lifelong partnerships that decades ago people couldn’t be out about, lifelong love affairs, just the kind of humor and sauciness and strength and joy that our elders did manage to boldly carve out and find and claim for themselves.
How far back in history do you go?
I immersed myself in as much as I could. Journal articles, actual archival materials. I got my hands on actual love letters and all kinds of source material. And then I found other peoples’ research on, for example, queer love letters that went back to the 1600s. So I did a lot of groundwork for this show.
When we go back in history in this show, we go back to the 1920s. And historically in this show, we only go up as far as before Stonewall. Often the Stonewall riots are heralded as the birth of the LGBT rights movement and awareness and community building. But also part of what I was passionate about sharing in this show is some window into all of the amazing gathering and organizing and loving that was happening long before Stonewall.
You describe your work as dance theater. Can you tell us about your artistic approach?
For myself, I think of my work as dance work. But because I use a lot of elements of storytelling and narrative and text in the sound score, and theater in the work, I use the term dance theater as a shorthand way to relate to people that it’s not abstract dance. So there are moments when we are dancing only to music. Or when we are using abstract ideas or even abstract text. Or when the whole company on stage is actually physically embodying just one character.
Text seems to be key.
Absolutely. I spend anywhere from six months to a year doing research on a piece and then doing writing. I’ll write the text for the score and record that. I work with a team of composers and they create music, and in this case, a lot of the score is compiled from hours and hours of interviews. But I do all of that first in the recording studio before I even set foot in a dance studio.
So you have a script basically.
Exactly. We have a very long script and that drives everything. You know when we go into a theater, the script drives all of our technical cues. Whether it’s as literal as a story or a storytelling section, or slightly more abstract text. It helps define the flavor of the movement vocabulary. And I think that’s part of why I get a lot of feedback from my audiences that the movement is also very powerful and resonates with them, that they understand not only the words that they’re hearing but they can understand the dance on stage.
I want to return to this idea of the archival sources. Can you give us a little more information about what kind of archival sources you’re working from?
A huge range. There’s a non-profit in San Francisco called the GLBT Historical Society. And they are an amazing and very important non-profit that also houses a physical archive of documents, clothing items, all kinds of items that document people and episodes in history out of the LGBT community. And so I would go into the archive and talk to Rebekah Kim, the archivist, about the things I was looking for. She found a collection of love letters between two queer women, one of them transgender, over the course of several years of their relationship. They had bequeathed these letters to the Historical Society. So one day I spent a couple of hours reading these letters. Some love letters, some regular letters back and forth to each other, and even love notes left on the kitchen table in the morning from one lover to another lover.
I also did a lot of research about the framework and the context within which people were trying to find each other to meet, to have community, to start political organizing. It was really in the bar that people were first able to find other people like themselves and see themselves reflected physically, emotionally- — their gender and sexual orientation — so nobody drinks alone. You know, decades ago, there was nothing in newspapers and books or magazines. Certainly you weren’t taught anything in school. If you were taught anything, elders talked about being shown films in school about the evils of homosexuality. And people underwent electric shock treatments. So the role of the underground bars and house parties or, in the ‘20s, speakeasies, was really vital to the birth of LGBT community.
Every single elder I interviewed had firsthand experience of police raids in bars. And some of them also police violence. A lot of transgender and lesbian or gay people have experienced police abuse and police violence. Some of them had been sexually assaulted or physically harmed by police. A lot of them had undergone arrest and been thrown in jail for either having been in a gay or trans bar, or just having been pulled over in their car. So that’s also part of the struggle to find each other and find love is this threat of violence and fear of police.
We have a section about wartime, and these gay couples who had to say goodbye at a train station with a handshake. A lover was going off to war and they may die, and not being able to publicly express affection for your life partner who is going off to fight a war. Or losing a partner and not being able to publicly grieve or get support publicly from the workplace. Or anywhere else. So it’s a lot of really heavy stuff.
I’m sure that it would be impossible to hear those kinds of stories and not be changed.
Absolutely. The project has been completely life-changing for me. And also for the collaborators on the project. I don’t think any of us could have known the remarkable breadth of love and strength and inventiveness and just gorgeous courage and life force that we would have the privilege to learn about.
I think people really leave filled with a lot of emotions. It’s quite a journey and a deep struggle. You know, the highs of first love. But people really leave full of inspiration about the strength of the human spirit. Transgender, gay, lesbian, straight, young, old, the human spirit is very strong. And despite any amount of adversity, we can manage to find human connection and love. There’ s just such powerful proof of that in this show.
The Secret History of Love by Sean Dorsey Dance, part of Out in the Tropics Contemporary Performing Arts Series. Saturday at 8:00 p.m. at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $20 and $15 for students/seniors; fundarte.us or ticketmaster.com or call 800-745-3000; email@example.com; 305-316-6165.
Photo: Lydia Daniller
A version of this article also appears in Miami New Times online.