“I’m such a Cancer,” Brontez Purnell said. “Double Sagittarius too. Just so pointlessly optimistic. ”
With so many projects happening at once, Purnell, who turns 40 in July, has no reason not to be. Though he has been creating music, films, dance pieces and written works for years, it was his 2021 book, “100 Boyfriends,” that gave him a heightened cultural visibility. Part memoir, part novel, part ethnographic study, the book creates an impressive, no-holds-barred map of his sexual adventures and misadventures in Northern California and earned him a Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction, awarded this week. He maps those experiences back onto his body, a site of his art, as evidenced by his stunning array of tattoos.
With Purnell, who was born in Alabama and now lives in the Bay Area, there is practically no distinction between body, mind and spirit, a unity that informs his dancing. Much like his writing, his onstage presence is so liberated it’s almost confrontational. And while he can be unrestrained, it’s always informed by rigor. He worked as a go-go dancer while studying contemporary dance with the modern dance pioneer Anna Halprin, and other Bay Area choreographers; in 2010, he established the Brontez Purnell Dance Company.
During the pandemic, his dance practice took a back seat to writing projects. But now he’s back, with his first evening-length solo dance piece, “Invisible Trial,” which premieres this week at Performance Space New York in Manhattan. Based on a paranoid short story by Sylvia Plath, the 40-minute dance loosely follows the nervy receptionist of a mental health clinic, who works under the watchful eye of the God of Anxiety.
The work, which Purnell describes as “an intense condensing of structure, sculpture and text,” features a soundscape of original music and spoken passages from Plath’s story. On a minimalist set – with rope, bedding, a reception’s desk – the performance sees him cycle from tinsel-covered headpieces to office wear to full nudity.
Purnell has enlisted dramaturgical help from the playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Purnell’s longtime collaborator, Larry Arrington, a dancer and astrologer, did the choreography.
“My role was more about supporting Brontez as he fleshed his ideas out, and constantly showering him with as much love and care as possible,” Arrington said in a Zoom interview, a framed photo of Purnell in blurry motion behind her. “You look at what he puts out and wonder how he takes all these disparate parts to make something beautiful and epic. How does one person contain this much kinetic spark? ”
In a quiet room at Performance Space New York, Purnell talked about his relationship to Plath, dance and the eternal martyrdom of the artist. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What has it been like returning to dance?
I spent quarantine finishing my new sci-fi novel, and my new poetry collection, and had forgotten that dance is basically language, like another form of writing. It was time for me to put my body onstage again, to remind myself that I live in a body. The whole point of performance is to reignite the body. It is a very important spiritual practice.
Tell me about you and Sylvia Plath.
I started reading her in, like, sixth grade. I had this teacher who gave me books, and they did not know what to give this little gay boy, you know, so they just gave me Sylvia Plath. She has this poem called “Mushrooms.” I do not know, I had a rough childhood, and I just remember the last line stuck with me: “We shall by morning / Inherit the earth / Our foot’s in the door.”
What about the Plath story, “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,” draws your attention?
It’s whip-smart, and beatnik-y, and I think really cemented Plath’s voice. It seems very autobiographical because she got electroshock therapy, and the story ends with the narrator getting it after her boss finds her snooping through the clinic’s files. It’s very tense, and she kind of sets herself up as a Christ figure, with the crown of thorns being the electroshock thing.
Are you a martyr?
Yes, but a really lazy one.
You have all of this amazing body art, and so much of your writing is about using your body as memory. I feel like that martyr adjacent?
I’m doing it so no one else has to. I’ll go do the dirty work and report back, you do not have to worry about all this. Somebody said that about me in a review once, and I thought that was really funny. It was like, “Brontez is doing all your drugs; smoking crack; [expletive] your boyfriend, and your boyfriend’s boyfriend; drinking your vodka – all so that you do not have to. ”
You’ve been trying to do this piece for 10 years. What held it up?
I’ve never had time or given myself permission to do a solo, and this was something that I always wanted to do right, and with support. The San Francisco dance scene is OK, but I have never gotten a whole lot of monetary support from that scene.
What do you feel gave you that permission? Performance Space? The success of “100 Boyfriends”?
It had been so long since I had actually danced, because of quarantine. Most of my performance art stuff became me doing this humanitarian thing where I was giving free sex shows online to men in closeted countries.
How did that go?
It was awesome because, you know, men in homophobic countries are so much more appreciative of you and your body. It gave me a new eye on performance, on how much of your soul you’re sharing.
What about “Johnny” made you want to turn it into a dance?
I’ve always liked Plath’s nervous tension; she’s essentially always writing about anxiety. Here, she’s writing about the futility of being an office worker with other dreams. A lot of the books I’ve written were done in tandem with some terrible job I had. I think the piece is this weird allegory for someone who has other, bigger dreams in life, but are kind of earthbound by their 9-to-5.
What did the collaborations for this look like?
The dramaturgy, with Jeremy, was just a series of late night phone calls about the structure I wanted to do, and how I want to execute it. With Larry, I just gave her certain parameters.
But I do not like to stress out my collaborators too much. I prefer just setting coordinates and then going in there and dealing with it, with their voices in the back of my head. I’m a bit anti-authoritarian, so you can tell me what to do, but not too much. Once you ask someone to choreograph and you ask someone to be a dramaturge, you’re basically asking someone to change your diaper and spank you.
Why the new title, “Invisible Trial”?
It’s about the idea that there are unforeseen actions happening all around you, dictating your behavior. For instance, if there’s a shadow campaign against you, do you actively confront that? Or do you keep just living your regular life and let the universe sort it out? Every time you bring it up, are you bringing something to the attention of people who had no clue? Now you’ve really put yourself in the spotlight.