Sunday, August 08, 2010

Holly Hughes' The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony)

Holly Hughes has been plying her particular brand of solo performance for over 30 years now, experience that provides her authority and refreshing, admirable self-assurance in her latest, The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony), which ran for two, too short nights at Dixon Place during their recent “Hot” Festival (

Holly’s last full-length piece was Preaching to the Perverted (2000), which detailed her experience as a so-called pariah during the culture wars in the 1990s, and her run-in with the NEA and the subsequent Supreme Court case over its grants to individual artists. Dog and Pony takes a different turn, narrating Holly’s attachment to the dogs with which she and her partner, the eminent lesbian anthropologist Esther Newton, have created their family.

Hughes’ politics here are as incisive as usual, but also personal and subtle. The self-deprecating irony is gone, as Holly takes physical, emotional, and intellectual command of Dixon Place’s gloriously wide, deep space. Holly and director Dan Hurlin set her story within simple décor: a small, comfortable armchair to which Holly retreats to tell some of the story; a tall wooden stool on which she sometimes perches; and a music stand from which she occasionally consults her script to mark her progress through the tale.

Slides of historical women and their dogs run behind her, punctuating the story with humor and a gentle reminder that this is an on-going, timeless relationship, into which Holly and Esther find themselves cast. In one of the show’s funniest visual moments, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas pose in a projected photo with their poodle between them. As we watch, the image morphs into Newton and Hughes, neatly tracing the legacy of famous lesbian couples and their canine kids.

In another very funny visual moment, lesbian singer Phranc is on hand for “Phranc Talk,” a segment in which she films Holly and her Norfolk Terrier, Ready, preparing to execute a difficult agility course. In an affectionately satirical style reminiscent of Best in Show, Phranc narrates as Holly and Ready go through their paces. Ready scurries obediently across the course, bounding up steep ramps, down see-saws, through tunnels, and over challenging obstacles, while Holly offers vocal encouragement to keep the pup on track as they move through the stations together.

Much of Dog and Pony pokes good-humored fun at the routines and obsessions of “dog people,” in this case largely middle-aged white women, whom Holly says need their bodies to carry stuff around the same way they need a good truck, and who, in erstwhile lesbians-of-a-certain-type style, simply throw clothes over themselves that immediately signal that they’ve “given up.”

Yet rather than belittling this community—of which she clearly considers herself a part—Hughes understands that at a certain point, the body becomes a vehicle, like those trucks, a means of delivering something or of getting somewhere rather than an end in itself. Even the funny bit about how these women dress signals a freedom from convention, a liberation from worrying about how they look so that they can concentrate on what they do and what, at the end of the leashes they hold with such seriousness and care, their dogs can achieve.

Likewise, Hughes’ description of her life with Newton and their dogs becomes a sly allegory for the vagaries of lesbian families. Hughes honors the importance of the primary domestic arrangements many of us have created with partners and beloved pets, taking seriously the nature of these special kinship structures.

The reference to offspring is always present, happily morphing into stories about their dogs. An anecdote about Holly and Esther waiting until the eleventh hour to reproduce turns into the hilarious and instructive tale of taking Newton’s prized poodle, Presto, for sperm collection. Holly describes Presto as her son, and admits she felt as if she were taking him to a whorehouse for the first time when they take him to the vet for an appointment with a flirtatious bitch.

She relates her mortification when Presto’s interaction doesn’t produce enough sperm to make him a good stud. That even in the world of dog breeding gender presumptions go without saying is part of the story’s moral, but Holly plays it for laughs instead of lessons. She describes the dog’s maleness in their lesbian household as a challenging curiosity (Newton, Hughes says, won’t have the dog fixed because she likes to look at his balls).

Likewise, the story of Hughes and Newton buying a sectional sofa so that they and their nine dogs can have “family time” together paints not just an hysterical picture of “dog lesbians” (as Hughes calls them), but also describes a viable alternative to more conventional lesbian families (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). I can still picture Holly and Esther on their ever-growing sofa, surrounded by terriers and poodles competing for their humans’ attention.

In Dog and Pony’s opening speech, Holly announces that the lesbian community remains divided: there are dog lesbians and cat lesbians and the asthmatics who can’t breathe either way. But her declaration underlines that the lesbian community continues to exist and even thrive despite these (and obviously other) differences. Holly continues to enjoy community and to find it important, a refreshing commitment in the face of its more trendy disparagement.

She might have left New York and the pleasures of WOW, the theatre “home for wayward girls” comprised of performance artists Holly recalls were kicked out of one feminist organization or another in the early 80s. But in her Michigan residence, she’s clearly embraced another community of women with practices as equally out of the ordinary. In fact, she says, dog people are a lot like artists; no one cares what they do.

Alongside stories of dog agility, breeding, and the women who know just how to do it come Holly’s observations about being a lesbian and a feminist of a certain age, about how her work and her life have always been inextricable from the politics of gender and sexuality. This aspect of Dog and Pony is poignant, politically smart, and often moving. When Holly announces her identifications, her performed declarations are really rather performative—that is, they do something to remind us of how potent the words “lesbian” and “feminist” once were and still can be, said with the conviction and faith and historical depth of experience Holly brings them.

A vignette about Holly wearing a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt to give a lecture at a university and the political fallout that ensues from her talk is terrific, as it illustrates the muddle of expectations people bring to contemporary politics. Invited by a lesbian academic to address the bad reputation of feminism among college students, the woman winds up accusing Holly of giving a talk that only exacerbates the stereotype of feminists as “angry lesbians.” Astonished, Holly retorts that “angry” and “lesbian” are her schtick—why was she invited if that’s not what this woman wanted?

Despite ironies such as these which she continues to track, Dog and Pony presents Holly in a generous mood. The lovely writing describes her relationship with Newton, and with a new best friend in Ann Arbor, where Holly is now a professor in the Art Department at the University of Michigan. These relationships clearly matter to her a great deal, and their texture and import color her stories with a new depth of feeling.

I consider Hughes one of the most important artists of our generation, someone who’s always taken formal risks to tell stories that too often go unheard in other cultural venues (mainstream, lesbian, and feminist alike). This new show retains her trademark outré humor, but also delivers authoritative insights in a style that’s beautifully modulated and tonally diverse.

Holly’s stories ring with the confidence of a cultural warrior who’s come out of the fray not just intact, but wiser, with a distinctive clarity about where she’s been, where she’s going, and what it all means. We’re invited to laugh with her, in Dog and Pony, to see the grace and beauty of ordinary people with their crazy but somehow humble obsessions.

For the performance’s final, lyrical bit of image-making, Holly stands downstage center and describes a silver wolf, with four legs that “spell fear,” coming out of the woods to assume the place created beside human beings when evolution left us without as much to do. Dogs, she protests, don’t descend from wolves; she credits the animals with agency, suggesting they chose their place beside us to help create us, just as we, with great empathy and affinity, help to create them.

As Holly takes her curtain call, one last video clip plays of a woman handling a Golden Retriever that she’s trained to dance beside her. The two perform in a large, nearly empty arena to music we can’t hear. Both of them seem thrilled to be moving in sync, dancing as a cross-species couple. The grainy image is striking and poignant, an homage to mutually fortifying, joyful and enabling relationships between humans and canines.

Thanks to Holly’s beautiful rendition of Dog and Pony Show, those relationships become a model for us all.

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Kids are All Right, Redux

After I posted my own blog on the film, I read several other responses from queer bloggers and LGBTQ folks in mainstream internet outlets —Jack Halberstam on Bully Bloggers (, Kate Clinton at The Huffington Post (, and Mark Harris at Entertainment Weekly (,,20402032,00.html), for only several example—and wanted to add an addendum to my own post as a result.

I enjoyed Cholodenko’s movie and don’t feel at all ashamed to say it. I don’t go to mainstream Hollywood films expecting radical ideological positions; call me conservative, call me liberal, but I don’t expect that particular form to be the one in which we save the world. I’m happy for a mainstream film that depicts lesbian relationships at all—how many, after all, can we list?

Isn’t this why The Kids are All Right bears what Kobena Mercer called so long ago now “the burden of representation”? Because there are so few representations of lesbians in the mainstream, everyone brings to them their own investments and standards, and it goes without saying how impossible it is to please everyone.

Yes, as Kate Clinton notes, the movie is in some ways the same-old same-old, and there’s no good lesbian sex “with skin.” But as Mark Harris says, Cholodenko seems more interested in what makes a long-term relationship than in sexy representations of lesbian moms. He thinks The Kids is one of the best films ever to describe what marriage means and how it looks. But some people think it didn’t do justice to long-term lesbian relationships, either.

Sure, the movie isn’t perfect. How could it be? As Sarah Schulman says on Bully Bloggers, it’s an achievement that it got made at all, a testament not only to Cholodenko’s skill as a filmmaker (given her track record with High Art and Laurel Canyon), but no doubt to her ability to move through Hollywood deal-making structures that of course will have some bearing on the final product. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

But can’t we look at what this film does and acknowledge that while it doesn’t do everything, it makes a contribution to however liberal a discourse about lesbians—white, upper-middle class, LA lesbians, who co-parent in a committed relationship; in other words, a certain type of lesbians—in the mainstream imaginary?

I found the film funny, moving, and observant about what it means to work through the ups and downs of a long-term relationship. And despite my own choice not to parent, I admire women who buck the odds, adopt one another’s biological children in conservative states like Texas, for only one example (where, had the movie been set there, the story might have been utterly different), and use their daily lives as a site of their activism.

The relationship Cholodenko depicts isn’t mine, either. I’ve been with my partner for 21 years, but we don’t call one another “wife,” as they do in the film. In fact, we cringe at that language, and want no ceremony of any sort (marriage or commitment) to mark our relationship. But we live in New Jersey, where we did take advantage of civil union legislation, in large part because we want to be able to make health care decisions for one another should it become necessary (and it will).

Implicit in some negative discussion about The Kids is judgment against the kind of lesbian families or relationships the film represents. Calling the film’s central relationship only normative seems exaggerated. Lesbians (and gay men) who want to marry might be assimilationist, but are there so many lesbian and gay families that they’re already widely recognizable and accepted, especially outside the west coast urban context in which the story plays out?

Doesn’t the film at least add to the number of public, mainstream representations of a family form that might still be alien to many people who see this film? If Nic and Jules seem “just like us” to many of those viewers, is that a bad thing, really? Some lesbians aren’t just like the mainstream and don’t aspire to be. But some do; should they be judged badly for that?

It seems to me futile to prescribe what’s “truly” radical in a lesbian relationship, or to suggest that any mainstream representation is just bound to get it wrong.

The good thing about The Kids are All Right is that it gives us something to argue around the perennial question of how the margins should be represented in the mainstream.

I hope, in 2010, that lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer social movement activism can accommodate multiple efforts on multiple fronts. It’s desperately important that we keep reimagining different ways of being people, reconfiguring the relative value of sexual practice, and re-envisioning potentially new arrangements for domestic structures.

I’d hope there’s room for work like Cholodenko’s alongside work by more formally and ideologically radical artists, like, for only one instance, Holly Hughes, whose newest performance, The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony), I just had the pleasure of seeing at Dixon Place in New York.

I’m personally eager to see both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, and to treat it all with the kind of critical generosity I think it deserves.

The Feminist Spectator