Queerness reframed in ‘Portraits’ by Gay Men’s Chorus at Kennedy Center

The nine-movement concert delivered visual art, original compositions, and choreography with a conviction both refreshing and urgent.

A feat four years in the making, Portraits at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall sees the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC at its most collaborative and inventive. Combining the work of nine visual artists, nine composers, nine choreographers, the 17th Street Dance ensemble, and the GMCW company, Portraits cleverly transcends medium in favor of message, distilling the poignant, the defiant, and the hopeful in equal measure.

Photo of 17th Street Dance in ‘Portraits’ courtesy of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC.Photo of 17th Street Dance in ‘Portraits’ courtesy of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC.

Each piece in this nine-movement oratorio springs from the work of a visual artist. Introduced by a dramatic reading of the composer’s lyrics, each painting materializes above the choir, then wakens at their song. As dancers flit and fly across the stage, song and text and brushstroke all gain physicality and the catharsis of movement. Just as the borders of artistic practice collapse into one another, so do the narratives of these pieces assemble and combine to form an expansive gallery of queerness across social boundaries.

Through artistic abstraction, what could border on a didactic homily on the issues most pressing to the queer community now becomes an understated and lyrical ode to a future worth imagining. Indeed, in the words of Cuban American academic José Esteban Muñoz that ripple across each composition: “the present is not enough.”

The oratorio’s movements each work toward alternative futures in which queerness may allow us to heal ourselves, to find communion, to fulfill our desires, to be seen, and to live loudly and unfettered by expectation. From the yearnful imaginings of Nicole Wandera’s “Strange Fruit,” accompanied by a composition by Paul Leavitt and a dance choreographed by Catherine Oh, to the reflective solitude of Judith Peck’s “Steeled,” accompanied by a composition by Matthew Felbein and a dance choreographed by Krystal Butler, the movements in Portraits sweep the spectrum of queer experience and artistry.

TOP: 17th Street Dance; ABOVE: 17th Street Dance and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC in ‘Portraits.’ Photos courtesy of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC.

The movements inspired by Joan Cox’s “Night Hunger,” a lucent piece exploring the force of the male gaze on lesbian relationships, and by Gregory Wilkins’ “Keep Your Eye on the Prize,” an empathetic study of queer solidarity and perseverance, stand out as crowd favorites. Other themes addressed just as tactfully include the disembodying effects of gender dysphoria (“Sleep with One Eye Open and Do Not Speak of It” by Terrance Gregoraschuk, music by Raymond Mueller, choreography by Jessi Brown-White), the isolation of racialized sociality (“See Me” by Linda Lowery, music by Royden Tse, choreography by Michael Bobbit), and the dichotomies between entrapment and escape (“Man with Tattoo, Havana” by James Kimak, music by Ismael Huerta, choreography by Solomon HaileSelassie; “Virginia” by Jacqueline Hoysted, music by Ethan Soledad, choreography by Andrea Miller).

GMCW’s Portraits delivers a cohesive yet varied series of original compositions with a conviction both refreshing and urgent. Helmed by Artistic Director Thea Kano, Portraits maintains a formal integrity despite its synthesized approach. Each piece feels distinct in its message while contributing to an exhibition united by queer love, kinship, and comradery. In addressing all these themes, Portraits tips the crucible of identity into new and expansive molds, casting queerness alongside myriad racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, as essential ways of being more intertwined and in need of protection than ever before.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Portraits played June 16, 2024, presented by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC performing at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC.

The complete playbill for Portraits is online here.

PROGRAM

Portrait: Strange Fruit
Artist: Nicole Wandera
Music: “Strange Fruit”
Composer & Lyricist: Paul Leavitt
Choreographer: Catherine Oh

Portrait: Shard
Artist: Céline Gauchey
Music: “I am (only mine)”
Composer & Lyricist: Cole Reyes
Text: Cole Reyes
Choreographer: Matthew Cumbie

Portrait: See Me
Artist: Linda Lowery
Music: “Do You See Me?”
Composer & Lyricist: Royden Tse
Choreographer: Michael Bobbitt

–Five-Minute Pause–

Portrait: Sleep with One Eye Open and Do Not Speak of It
Artist: Terrance Gregoraschuk
Music: “Sleep With One Eye Open”
Composer & Lyricist: Raymond Mueller
Choreographer: Jessi Brown-White

Portrait: Steeled
Artist: Judith Peck
Music: “Steeled”
Composer & Lyricist: Matthew Felbein
Choreographer and Soloist: Krystal Butler

Portrait: Night Hunger
Artist: Joan Cox
Music: “For Us”
Composer: Richard Clawson
Lyricist: Caroline Peacock
Choreographer: James Ellzy

–Five-Minute Pause–

Portrait: Man with Tattoo, Havana
Artist: James Kimak
Music: “Paz”
Composer: Ismael Huerta
Text: Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938)
Choreographer: Solomon HaileSelassie

Portrait: Black Lives Matter: Keep Your Eye on the Prize
Artist: Gregory Wilkins
Music: “It Was Not Fate”
Composer: Joshua Fishbein
Text: William H. A. Moore
Choreographer: Craig Cipollini

Portrait: Virginia
Artist: Jacqueline Hoysted
Music: “When I Rise Up”
Composer: Ethan Soledad
Text: Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966) Choreographer: Andrea Miller
Soloist: Chloe Crenshaw

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