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Dance Work 'Virago-Man Dem' Explores The Many Faces Of Masculinity

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Image courtesy of Cynthia Oliver
A dancer performs a scene in "Virago-Man Dem," a dance by choreographer Cynthia Oliver to premiere this weekend at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

The range of behavior our culture acknowledges as masculine might include both good and bad, but it’s still not very wide. So says Cynthia Oliver, a nationally-known choreographer based in Illinois

Oliver has a young son, and she’s concerned about the images of masculinity that he and other men – particularly men of color – are fed by the media.

“My intimate knowledge of black men was disturbed by the narrow performances, [and the] presentation of conversations around what black masculinity is and can be,” she says. “And then also being the mother of a young boy, I wanted there to be more options for him, in terms of who he could be.”

For her new dance work, Oliver drew on her experience growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has its own set of conventions around gender presentation. Caribbean culture, for instance, calls a woman who exhibit traditionally “male” traits, like bravery or brashness, a “virago.”

The term is pejorative, but Oliver is reclaiming it. Virago-Man Dem explores what Oliver calls “the breadth of masculine performances, whether it’s by someone who is biologically male or not.” (“Dem” follows the Caribbean convention of pluralizing nouns by adding “them.”)

Credit Julieta Cervantes / Courtesy of Cynthia Oliver
Courtesy of Cynthia Oliver
Dancers perform in Cynthia Oliver's "Virago-Man Dem."

The work debuted in October 2017, at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music, and has since toured to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. Four male performers, all African-American or Afro-Caribbean, use movement, song and spoken word to tell their stories and show that there are many ways to be masculine. “Each one is very particular and very different than the other,” says Oliver.

The show incorporates projected video animations and original music. Copious costume changes help express the various roles and personas the performers assume. “I wanted it to demonstrate a level of playfulness, a number of different characterizations – just the ability to be chameleon-like and shape-shifting,” Oliver says.

The show runs 75 minutes. Referencing her son, she says, “This was my sort of love letter to him and to all of the beautiful men in my life, to say ‘I know, and we all know, there’s so much more [to masculinity] than what gets presented.’”

Virago-Man Dem is performed Friday and Saturday at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, in East Liberty, as part of the KST Presents series. Tickets are “pay what makes you happy”; more information is available at the theater’s web site.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm