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Moving Colors: Many Selves In The Making

Text by Michael J. Morris

 Photo of Michael J. Morris by Megan Leigh Barnard

Photo of Michael J. Morris by Megan Leigh Barnard

1. 

2001

I’m a theater student just beginning to take dance classes at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. I grew up in Central, and the thing I remember most about my childhood is the library: moving between fiction and non-fiction, learning how to research questions and find answers of my own, I think libraries are where I began the process of figuring out who I was and who I could be. I spend a lot of time reading in high school, and I spend a lot of time journaling—about loneliness, about feeling invisible, and about the boys who seem perpetually out of reach. I spend just as much time praying—mostly praying about feelings for which I do not yet have words, trying to pray away the deep, aching sense that I am wrong. Baton Rouge is so full of dense humidity and religion that it feels like there’s hardly room for anything else. I began dancing at my church when no one else was dancing, and maybe it was from all the church-talk of “sins of the flesh,” but I had never felt like a body before. These are the years I dance my body into being.

Ms. Martinez, one of the theater teachers at school, gives me a flyer for a modern dance performance called GREEN, a holiday show by a local dance company called Of Moving Colors Productions. Sitting in the audience, I feel like I’m glimpsing a world I never knew existed, a world to which I could belong. This world of dancing bodies sweating through shimmering green satin and misty lights is full of breath and weight, saturated with color. I don’t yet even understand what I’m watching, but I know that as dancers lean into one another and lift each other, as they press their knees wide and arch their spines, as they seem to swim through the space—skimming across the surface of the stage, hopping into the air, passing in and out of intricate formations—I feel the pull of a faraway homeland from right behind my heart. Each of OMC’s productions are themed around color: Yellow/Orchid/Blue, Red, White, Lilac/Magenta, Green, Orange. Each show is intoxicating in its specificity, in the richness of its composition, where each dance in each show is somehow entirely unique and yet clearly belongs to this hue.

By the end of high school, I’m dancing with the company and beginning to know this world from the inside out: the long hours in the studio, the sweating and struggling with the choreography, pushing my body to do what it doesn’t yet know how to do, mesmerized as I watch Garland Goodwin Wilson, the director of the company, craft a moving mosaic of music and poetry and dance, seemingly from nothing. There’s no script or blueprint from the start; each production emerges as a dozen or so dances are made from scratch, and Garland figures out how all the pieces can fit together, how one transitions to the next, and what the show as a whole can become. I have never wanted to be like someone as much as I want to be like Garland.

 Photo by Billy Wilson * Of Moving Color's production of  Green .

Photo by Billy Wilson * Of Moving Color's production of Green.

2. 

2007

Living in Mississippi is hard. I am a dance major at a Christian college; when I’m dancing, I feel like living, and the rest of the hours of the rest of the days, I feel heavy with dread and rage. My hair is long, and I wear draping, flowing fabrics and girl-jeans as if to say I dare you to even try to tell me who I cannot be. I fall in love with sensitive, artistic Christian boys who say they’ve never met anyone like me, who don’t know how to love me, and I spend a lot of time crying because I have never felt so alone. Every time I get in my car, I imagine just driving away, escaping into another life somewhere I can be someone else.

Near the end of my freshman year, I wander into a shop called New Vibrations in the arts district of Fondren, a purple and green store full of glitter and crystals and candles and tarot cards and books about magic rituals, Feng Shui, and all kinds of mystic traditions. The owner Karen, her sister Gwen, and Gwen’s wife Lori become like fairy godmothers to me. I learn about Goddess spiritualities, and I think coming to a Goddess is one of the first steps I’ve taken toward healing from patriarchy. 

I take classes on reading tarot, I learn about crystals and auras and spells, and most of all I learn that I can be loved even though I’m queer. Gwen and Lori are the first out lesbian people I’ve ever known, and knowing and loving them gives me a sense of a life that is possible. I often think that I learned what it means to be queer from middle-aged lesbian witches in Jackson, Mississippi.

Across the street from New Vibrations, I practice yoga at Butterfly Yoga, a studio that used to be a gas station in the 1950s, now seafoam green on the outside, bright orange and magenta walls on the inside. In yoga, like in dancing, I keep becoming a body. Inhaling, sweeping my arms overhead, feet rooted to the earth; exhaling, bowing forward from the hips, swan-diving into a deep forward fold. Inhaling, lengthening through my spine, feeling space between my ribs, belly drawing in to support me from the center; exhaling, stepping my feet to the back of the mat, taking weight into my hands and folding into downward-facing dog. I learn to “open to grace,” to open to the possibility of my own innate goodness. I learn that we are all emanations of the same Source, that all things are both many and One. Breathing and sweating on the mat in the Mississippi heat, I feel like I’m going to survive.

In college, I first encounter the work of feminist porn icon Annie Sprinkle and her partner, artist and professor Elizabeth Stephens. They are in the middle of a seven-year performance art project called the Love Art Laboratory, in which they commit to exploring, generating, and celebrating love. The Love Art Lab began as a response to the anti-same-sex marriage movement and our culture of war and greed; they teach me that sometimes the most effective form of artistic protest is to create that which you want to see more of in the world. Create the world in which you want to live. Each year of the project is themed around a different color corresponding to one of the seven major chakras. Red and orange and yellow and green, each year Annie and Beth stage elaborate performance art weddings in which they renew their vows to one another and create art inspired by the themes and colors associated with each chakra. Their work feels like Of Moving Colors in Baton Rouge—the queer, San Francisco, performance art version, really different but also somehow the same. When I look at photos and videos of their work—big and bright and colorful and queer—I feel so full, as if the horizons of where I am are opening out onto a world that I could be a part of.

 Photo by Karen Parker • New Vibrations

Photo by Karen Parker • New Vibrations

3. 

2011

It’s a chilly, foggy December morning in San Francisco, and I’m making my way up to Bernal Hill for the Love Art Lab’s White Wedding to the Sun, the closing ritual to Annie and Beth’s seven-year performance art project. I met Beth and Annie in 2009, a year after they came out as ecosexuals and married the Earth in a Green Wedding in Santa Cruz, California. Then I married the Appalachian Mountains with them in a Purple Wedding in Athens, Ohio. Here we are again, gathering this time to marry the sun. I wasn’t initially so sure about marrying the sun; I sunburn easily, and I don’t really like to be hot. But the more I thought about it, the more I warmed up to the idea: the sun is one of the longest relationships I’ve been in, and I don’t foresee a time when we’ll separate. On a very basic level, all life on this planet is a series of complex thermodynamic processes unfolding as the lives we live; we are the light of the sun, as is the food that we eat that becomes the bodies that we are. Annie and Beth invite us to eroticize this relationship; they offer ecosexuality as a way of making the environmentalist movement sexier and more fun, shifting the metaphor from “Earth as Mother” to “Earth as Lover.”

For me, ecosexuality is about recognizing our entanglement with the more-than-human world around us, appreciating the ways in which sexuality is already ecological, and the ways in which we might understand ecological relations as erotic. From the thousands of species of bacteria and protists and viruses and fungi that make up the microbiome of the human body, to the management of interspecies intimacies that we call “safer sex,” to the effects of birth control pharmaceuticals urinated into water supplies that are causing mutations of species in different ecosystems, to the condoms and dental dams and gloves and vibrator batteries and sex toys and tubes of lube that we throw away and that all end up in a landfill somewhere, to the direct relationship between viewing video pornography on our computers and tablets and energy industries, linking our sexual predilections and techno-stimulated orgasms directly to industries like coal mining and mountain-top removal: our sexualities have never been a purely human affair. Sex and sexuality, even in their most mundane forms, involve our already more-than-human bodies mediating more-than-human sexual partners, incorporating more-than-human technologies with implications for a much larger world that is far more than human. Maybe if we understood sexuality as bigger than just reproductive sexual behavior or even bigger than just intercourse between bodies, we might care more for the planet, and we might find our way out of the suffocating gridlock of static sexual orientations and the gender norms they reinscribe.

When we get to the top of the hill, I perform a slow-moving Butoh solo, a dance with both the earth and the sun inspired by sunflowers and decay, rooted down into the ground, twisting and turning towards the sun. As I dance, Annie, Beth, and sex educator Joseph Kramer read a text about my body being entered and spread open by starlight and shadow, fucked in ass and mouth and eyes, becoming constellation and glacier, flesh becoming film, the sunlight shining through me. Another performer births a raw egg from her vagina, breaks it open, and anoints us all with the yoke. Someone else sings Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” A burlesque dancer spins fire tassels from her tits and toasts marshmallows from the flames hanging from her breasts. We take vows to love, honor, and take pleasure with the sun, and we vow to use sunscreen to facilitate intimacy in our relationship. 

 Photo by Liz Highleyman • The White Wedding to the Sun

Photo by Liz Highleyman • The White Wedding to the Sun

4. 

2014

People drift into the studio, roll out their yoga mats, and begin warming up for Queer Yoga. We meet in a flexible community arts space called It Looks Like It’s Open in Columbus, Ohio. This isn’t our first space. For years we met in an art gallery, then a warehouse dance space, then the bar attached to a theater. I’ve been teaching this class for nearly four years, providing queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming folks with yoga classes that we attempt to make safer spaces—spaces where we try not to assume things like gender, sex, sexuality, race, age, ability, ethnicity, or any identity factors that come with a value judgement attached to it. We use gender-neutral language and try to make the practice accessible to anyone, whether they’ve been practicing yoga for ten years or if it’s their first class. When I’m teaching, I emphasize appreciation for each body and our differences, rather than yoga being focused on conformity or uniformity or achieving a single ideal physical form. In a lot of yoga classes, there’s a kind of generic “look”—like the white ladies in spandex with flowing hair in beautiful poses on the covers Yoga Journal or all over Instagram. It can be difficult to not look like everyone else or to be a minority in a space; it can be difficult to feel like you belong when there aren’t many or any other people like you around.

I moved to Ohio to go to graduate school, and now I’m finishing my PhD in Dance Studies. My days are spent reading and writing, dancing, choreographing, and teaching. Queer Yoga has been my lifeline in grad school; having a community that is not directly associated with academic life helps me remember that the world is bigger than just what I’m doing right now. It’s also a healthy reminder that even though it can still feel really lonely or isolating to be a queer, genderqueer/nonbinary person, there are other people like me. I’m not alone. Maybe that’s part of why we show up and practice yoga together week after week: to remember that we aren’t alone.

One night after class, I’m at a small gay dive bar with Forest. We’re making out on the pool table when the DJ makes a joke about how both of us are “bottoms.” I say that I’m not a bottom, and he says, “Well, what are you then?” Forest looks at me and says, “Aren’t you everything?” We go home and spend the rest of the night fucking the way you do when you are everything.

5. 

2016

YOU CAN READ THE FULL MEMOIRE HERE IN ISSUE 03

 Photo by Lydia Daniller • The Love Art Lab Green Wedding to the Earth

Photo by Lydia Daniller • The Love Art Lab Green Wedding to the Earth


Michael J. Morris is a choreographer, performer, writer, and educator from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, living and working in central Ohio. They are currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Denison University, where they teach in the Department of Dance, Queer Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Michael’s writing has been published in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater, TDR: The Drama Review, Choreographic Practices, Dance Chronicle, and the European Journal of Ecopsychology. Michael holds a PhD in Dance Studies from The Ohio State University. Find more Michael @ michaeljmorris.weebly.com/


 
 
Charles Champagne