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Monday, November 25, 2013

Cross-Dressing at BAM: A Brief Survey

By Louie Fleck

Reinhild Hoffman's Callas, performed by Tanztheater Bremen

The 1861 bylaws of the Brooklyn Academy of Music contain a little-known, and oddly undocumented, regulation. Without getting into confusing legal jargon, BAM is required to present, on a regular basis, men in women’s attire and women wearing outfits normally associated with men. Whatever our forward-thinking founding fathers had in mind, we have gladly complied. Here is a quick historical scan of cross-dressing at BAM.

Cross-dressing has long been essential to storytelling history. In numerous Greek, Norse, and Hindu myths, sexual identities are switched, either as punishment or as a way to avoid detection.

Males played the female parts in Shakespeare’s original productions. But within the plays are numerous instances of characters switching genders to achieve a questionable goal or complicate the plot. Speaking of the Bard, in 2011, Ed Hall’s company Propeller blew the roof off of the Harvey Theater with a wonderful, over-the-top production of The Comedy of Errors.

Propeller's A Comedy of Errors. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

We at the BAM Hamm Archives especially love this handbill featuring “The Last of the Red Hot Poppas," Francis Renault, "World’s Foremost Female Impersonator." It makes us wonder: who was the first?

Perhaps you recall our earlier blog by Joseph Bradshaw about the cross-dressers of Dyker Heights. Well refresh your memory of those "hothouse flowers," who performed at BAM in 1921.

The Polytechnic Dramatic Association had several all-male cross-dressing spectacles. Surviving programs reveal a non-traditional approach to casting. Confusion (1902) must have confused many on several levels. In 1910, Entangled featured some very tall “ladies:”

On countless occasions at BAM, Pina Bausch has questioned traditional gender roles with provocative costuming:

Photo: Pina Bausch's Auf Dem Gebirge, Hat Man Ein Geschrei Gehort, by Ursula Kaufmann

The Threepenny Opera (2011), with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, was directed by Robert Wilson. Here is Mack the Knife in lingerie:

The Threepenny Opera. Photo: Leslie Leslie-Spinks

Choreographer Mark Morris regularly practices gender-blind casting. Here is a 1992 photo featuring Kraig Patterson as the Housekeeper in The Hard Nut. He reprised the role at BAM in 2010.

Mark Morris's The Hard Nut

The 2012 Next Wave Festival brought Circus Amok’s amazing energy to the new BAM Fisher. Jennifer Miller’s group continues to push gender-bending boundaries between traditional circus skills, experimental dance, and performance art.

Photo: Jennifer Miller, by Rahav "Iggy" Segev

Last spring, the lines were blurred to beautiful effect with the casting of the Les Arts Florissants’ David et Jonathas, a baroque opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Photo: David et Jonathas, by Julieta Cervantes

This just scratches the surface. I'd love to tell you more, but I must hurry off to find a new gown and heels—I'm off to the theater!

Louie Fleck is the BAM Archives Coordinator

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