A Vogue Legend, Still Enlarging Circles of Pleasure
When Archie Burnett walks onto a dance floor, he tends to grab it.
Part of it is because he’s a tall guy, 6ft 4in and full of muscle. Especially in the ’80s and’ 90s, when he was a mainstay of New York’s underground clubs, his body was, as he recently put it, “banging”.
A body like this attracts attention, but any chance of fading into the background really disappears when it starts to move. Then there is a kaleidoscope of long lines and sharp angles. At any moment, he is ready for a click of the camera; at every moment, he is in rhythm.
His dance is also knowledge in action. Vogue and waacking, which are resurfacing in popular culture, may be new to some, but not to Burnett. He is the grandfather of the House of Ninja, a dance collective that helped spread vogueing from ballrooms to videos and fashion shows in the ’80s and’ 90s. With Tyrone Proctor, a pioneer of waacking who happened to be Burnett’s brother-in-law, he helped revive that flamboyant and aerial style of improvisation, developed in gay clubs in Los Angeles in the 1970s. House dance is also home to it.
A takeover of the Burnett dance floor, however, is never hostile. Choreographer David Neumann remembers going clubbing with him in the ’90s. “People would want to fight him,” Neumann said. “But Archie immediately disarmed the person – screaming, slapping the floor, congratulating them.”
“That’s his attitude,” Neumann continued. “If you’re really into dancing, you get props. Now, he’ll likely beat you up in the end, but that’s not his goal. Its goal is the joy of dancing.
Sally Sommer, a critic and historian who followed Burnett to clubs in the ’80s and placed him at the center of her’ 90s dance documentary, “Check Your Body at the Door,” also described the attitude. of Burnett in an interview: “It’s about widening the circles of fun.
At 62, Burnett is still expanding those circles – in clubs but also in classrooms. Since the 90s, as the demand for teaching underground club styles has increased around the world and especially in Europe, he has become one of the most revered and influential teachers. (“The most important broadcaster,” Sommer said.) Young dancers lovingly describe him as a fairy godfather, cool uncle or the best dad ever, as a friend who makes you want to dance even though you have sore feet.
From July 28 to August 1, his teaching takes on a new form: “Life Encounters”, a show at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires. In it, Burnett and an intergenerational dance troupe tell the story of his life in dance. (Video of the production will be available on the Jacob’s Pillow website August 12-26.)
They tell this story through dance, with vignettes from Burnett’s high school days, his introduction to underground clubs and vogueing, his first encounter with Europe and experimental dance. These are all discovery scenes, in which he usually introduces himself as a novice. There is a lot of humor.
Burnett is in the center, dancing and narrating. His voice is as loud as the rest of him, and he’s used to talking. Ask him almost any question these days, and his response will likely include the phrase “What I tell children is …” or one of what he calls his “sayings,” like “you don’t. can not fake the real “and” the the club is the classroom.
The club was his classroom. He had virtually no formal training. At first he riddled with the moves of “Soul Train”. Until 2014, he had a day job with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. (In “Check Your Body,” you can see him washing subway cars.) Dancing, for him, was more a passion than a profession.
Speaking after a recent rehearsal, Burnett said the most important experience of his life began in 1980, when he started dancing at the Loft, the underground party celebrated for its mixed crowd of dance enthusiasts and its spirit of acceptance. “The Loft was an upcoming party,” he said. “It allowed me to be who I was, even when I didn’t know who I was.”
When Burnett was growing up in Brooklyn, dancing was something he had to do on the sly. Her mother, a Seventh-day Adventist from Dominica, did not approve. “I wasn’t on drugs, I wasn’t killing anyone, but she had a problem because I like to shake my ass?” said Burnett. “She told me I was going to hell, that I had to go to God. But dancing is like a religion for me. This is where I feel closest to my spiritual plane.
His mother wanted him to be a preacher, and in a way, maybe she got her wish. Burnett preaches the Loft gospel, which is a gospel of love. The message of “Life Encounters” is the message of all its classes: “Live your truth” and “you are good enough”.
There isn’t much sadness in the show, although there was in Burnett’s life. “When AIDS hit the place, my friends were dropping like flies,” he said. Willi Ninja, who founded the House of Ninja and rose to fame after appearing in the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning”, died of AIDS-related heart failure in 2006. Burnett was his health care proxy. “I had to pull the plug out after he went into cardiac arrest,” he said. “These experiences shaped my idea of friendship and family. I try to spread this love through dancing.
It’s not that Burnett doesn’t teach movement. He tries to teach his students like he has learned. “These kids were never brought up in the club culture,” he said. “They see it from the outside. But this stuff comes from within. I try to pretend we’re at a party and invite them to do what I’m doing ”- a mirror that connects them to the music and their own responses.
For the cast of “Life Encounters”, rehearsals have been an ongoing master class. “Archie is a history carrier and he always drops gems,” said Abdiel Jacobsen, who was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company (and who uses the pronoun “they”). A few years ago, looking for ways to more fully express a fluid gender identity, Jacobsen found encouragement and welcome in Burnett’s vogue and waacking classes. Now a fan of The Hustle, they do this couple dance with Burnett in the show.
Sinia Alaia (who also goes by Sinia Braxton, Nia Reid and other names) met Burnett about seven years ago, when they were both teaching in Sweden. A prominent diva in the fashionable ballroom scene – in “Life Encounters,” she educates others to the nerve – she was then in her thirties and had not performed and was afraid to give an instructor demonstration. “But Archie said to me, ‘You got this, girl,’ and he breathed this life into me,” Reid said. “It’s when you stop dancing that you feel the pain.”
Growing old has not been easy for Burnett. “I’m my worst critic,” he said. “If I thought about all the abilities I had when I was 20, I would go crazy. But I tried to stop worrying about what I didn’t have and remembering what I had done.
What he has are relationships. The cast of “Life Encounters”, he said, is like a “family love affair”. Maya Llanos is the daughter of DJ Joey Llanos, a friend of Burnett’s during the Paradise Garage era. Samara Cohen, better known as Princess Lockerooo, is Proctor’s main protege (who died last year). DeAndre Brown (Yummy in the ballroom) was once part of the House of Ninja. Burnett met Ephrat Asherie on the dance floor. “I danced with this girl for 20 years,” he said.
And what he has is knowledge. Playwright Marcella Murray, who serves as playwright for “Life Encounters” with Neumann, said that while researching for this show, “Archie is looking, this amazing font”.
But it wasn’t just Burnett’s knowledge of dancing that impressed Murray. “We’ve had conversations in the arts about how we treat each other,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see how Archie has evolved across the world and how people want to present themselves to him.”
“Because we all try to be like that,” she continued, “not just by making brilliant art, but by being good people who make art. That’s my favorite reason. to be happy that people can see more of Archie.
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