Movement Matters is a monthly column by Michael Workman that investigates performers whose work intersects politics, policy, and issues related to the body as the locus of socio-cultural dialogues on race, gender, ability and more.
For this installment, we sit down with dancer, performance artist and vocalist ALEXA GRÆ (a.k.a. Alex Edgemon) to discuss the influence of community, their mother’s poetry practice on their art-making, operatic personae and the difficulty of experimenting between artistic forms to discover their own intersectional volitions. A lightly edited transcript of the interview is presented here.
Michael Workman: Are you originally from the city or somewhere else?
ALEXA GRÆ: I’m from Big Spring, Texas, a really small town of about 20,000 people. I came to Chicago to go to graduate school at Northwestern studying opera and performance and just kind of never left. I had been about to finish my undergrad and was sort of like, “Oh, you can go to grad school for this, okay, I should probably look into that.” I had no idea of what to look for in terms of schools and I started asking around to friends, ‘Hey can you give me a list of like 5 schools I should check out?’ and Northwestern was one of them. I pretty much landed in the city and something about the energy was right. Everything just kind of worked out.
MW: Does your appreciation for art and music come from your upbringing, or somewhere else?
AG: It was both my mom and me growing. She played piano and sang a little bit in our church choir. I used to sit in the pew while she was in the church choir and I was I think 8 years old. I took piano when I was very little and just kind of kept going.
MW: Was it a big transition coming from Big Spring to Chicago?
AG: I don’t think it was. I knew for a long time — my mom was just like, “Alex is creative.” I remember in my childhood — I don’t have any horror stories about growing up or that kind of thing — I was lucky and then my whole world really changed when I went away to college. That’s when I started to work on coming out and really diving into opera and my world just totally changed in Chicago. After school, I didn’t do much. I joined a church in the northern burbs that a professor at Northwestern had recommended and ended up working in an athletic club. Eventually I moved to another church down in the Gold Coast. I wasn’t singing a lot so I started going to auditions and I didn’t know how to do them, so I ended up doing a lot of waiting around until a year and a half later I ended up singing with the Madison Opera. That was my first real big sort of thing and an amazing experience. So my friends and I from grad school started a band called thnku4sex. It was sort of like folk, theater, opera and that’s how we started to find the Salonathon community. We realized we were going through the same shit in grad school but nobody was really talking about it, so we’d get together and be like, “oh, yeah that was happening to me too.”
MW: So, Salonathon was sort of your entree to the performance world in Chicago.
AG: I give it so much credit for uncovering what I do. I did the thing they do where they go away to camp in Wisconsin called Camp Salondawega. We had these 20-minute slots to do something and it was the week before and I was still like, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” because most of my work involves getting up on a stage and I camp up with this idea to do this song I’d written in undergrad and I was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll make a songscape, like an electronic—take it from what it was originally written for and write it so I can sing it out in the woods. It was this techno-y, electronic dance thing. I did that and it was very far from how I’d started, and people responded in a very positive way.
MW: Ahh, so you found a very natural connection between this experiment and what you’d been doing all along.
AG: Exactly. It was everything. It was the people. It was this legit, for-real interest and also taking all this training, this way of integrating it into what I’d been doing and learning and what I want to do. I don’t really have much interest in the stories that are being told in opera, the sort of standard narratives. When I’m using my voice it’s the same sort of characters I’m not really into that, so why not write my own? I got bored with it and then I wasn’t even able to audition for things that I was bored with. So it was kind of out of necessity.
MW: Got it, so that was the juncture where you veer off into more the combination of performance art, dance and vocalist that you’re working with today?
AG: It’s like I’m obsessed with this whole other world but also the classical operatic approach, the thing that vocally happens there. But then also this soundscape that shouldn’t be here and dancing around on those two things and really stretching myself in a lot of different ways. And the stories I’m telling, the poetry was written by my mom and I was doing it when I was 20, I guess? But the poetry was something I needed to translate because it was so my mom and I was changing it into this whole other thing, adding onto this sort of classical approach, this sort of French song set to electronic music. I was really scared to write my own poetry for a long time, I just thought it wasn’t any good and didn’t want to share it for a long time. I started asking about [my mom’s] poems. She shared one with me and I wrote something for the choir, and then I realized she had this shelf of poetry that I’d never read and then I thought, “Oh, this is what I want to sing about.”
MW: And is that what eventually brought you to the themes and intersections in the work you made for High Concept Labs?
AG: So, after Salonathon, I did a residency in 2015 at the U of C’s Chicago Performance Lab and the idea. I talked to a few people about what this idea of a diva means, and I was sort of like, what if I take this idea of the diva and put it on a male body that’s brown and queer, and I’m still attracted to the femme and what that means. I’m essentially just talking about the entertainment world and figures I looked up to as a child, like Leontyne Price, this black opera singer who’s basically like Madonna. So it’s sort of trying to capture all these specific influences and infuse that into my own art, you know there’s this sort of show that for 45 minutes was me just doing number after number, this sort of electronic opera and then it went into House and pop music, then electronic opera, stuff like that and then more of like a performance. I wanted to bring that again for High Concept Labs, a little bigger, a little more dance, more people involved. I think I composed this in my head as a kind of movement, and I think you can see that in the gesture. A lot of it was me just getting comfortable with moving myself, and with step choreography, letting myself experiment with my own composition.
MW: Right. Letting the voice, movement and visual elements integrate into one composition.
AG: Yes, and that was essentially my idea, to come up with this diva figure who has to do everything. Just that idea of idea, of pushing yourself to do it. So, yeah.
ALEXA GRÆ is appearing through Sept. 2 in The Fly Honey Show at the Den Theatre. More information on their work can be found at https://www.facebook.com/whoisalexagrae.
Please send questions, comments or tips to Michael Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each Spring and Fall, as a corollary to the Movement Matters column, we also present a series of symposia and performances at different locations throughout the city based on topics developed out of and indexed from both the columns and live discussions.
Each live event is filmed for adaptation to the Movement Matters web series, premiering in late 2017 on Open TV. Please join the Movement Matters Facebook page for information on additional forthcoming symposium, installments in our performance series, broadcast dates and times, archives of past columns, and to join in on future conversations.