Finding ‘Ghost Collaborators’ for an All-American Ballet

In American dance history, the 1938 ballet “Filling Station” is something between a milestone and a footnote. Created for American dancers by an American choreographer with a score by an American composer – a rare combination at the time – it also had a new theme, about the interactions of local characters at a gas station. It was a groundbreaking work, and a popular work, which has become a rarely revived curiosity.

Multidisciplinary artist Matthew Lutz-Kinoy discovered ‘Filling Station’ through a fragment of it: Paul Cadmus’ original costume design for Mac, the station keeper, as recreated in the artist Nick Mauss’s 2018 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. That costume resembles the overalls a gas station attendant from the 1930s might have worn, except it is see-through.

“It was a spark of queer liberation,” Lutz-Kinoy said recently. “It was very moving to see this historical representation of queer expression burst out of a rigid structure as narrative ballet.”

That spark drove Lutz-Kinoy to create his own version of ‘Filling Station’. Commissioned by the avant-garde art center The Kitchen, it will make its debut Thursday — at an actual gas station: the Mobil station at Eighth Avenue and Horatio Street in the West Village.

Lutz-Kinoy kept some of the characters – Mac and the truck drivers Ray and Roy – but changed and updated the screenplay. Instead of Virgil Thomson’s score, there is a new one by James Ferraro. Fashion designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta give their own take on the costumes. And instead of the original choreography by Lew Christensen, who conducted the San Francisco Ballet for decades, there is new work by Niall Jones and Raymond Pinto.

Despite all the changes, the original ‘Filling Station’ is strongly present in Lutz-Kinoy’s new version. “Queer representation is constantly fighting for a space for expression,” he said. “There is a constant urge to conform.” So discovering a precedent like “Gas Station” was, he said, “like finding your ghost employees.”

The project is both an art historical study and a performance. An exhibition in the temporary space of the Kitchen at Westbeth in the West Village (through Nov. 3) mixes archival material from the history of “Filling Station” with photos and videos of the rehearsal process for this version, along with paintings by Lutz-Kinoy that borrowing footage from various “Filling Station” productions. An extra performance in Dia Beacon on September 23 will feature a 50-foot backdrop that merges these paintings.

“There is an intentional shift in time,” says Lutz-Kinoy, who adds that he sees both the rehearsal process and performance as a kind of live-action role-playing game. “We take cues from the historic structures, but we create and uncreate those architectures,” he said.

The original “Filling Station” was created for Ballet Caravan, a short-lived touring company led by impresario Lincoln Kirstein, as part of his long effort to establish ballet in the United States. It was a mix of ballet bravado, vaudeville gags and cartoonish aesthetics. (A television appearance from 1954 of dancers from the New York City Ballet, which Kirstein founded with George Balanchine in 1948, can be found on YouTube.)

Kirstein described the gas station setting as invitingly familiar, a crossroads where different types of “recognizable social types” could meet. Lutz-Kinoy’s project follows Mauss’s 2019 exhibition “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” at the Museum of Modern Art, reclaiming Kirstein and his circle of friends, lovers, and collaborators as pioneers of queer aesthetics.

In his version, Lutz-Kinoy has exchanged the car driver, wife and child for a tourist, and replaced the gangster, whom he called “an outdated archetype,” with an activist. “With all the elements and collaborations,” he said, “I tried to open doors, not close them.”

Jones said that in choreographing the new version he did not feel tied to the original, to the new score or even to the idea of ​​a story, except as a “fiction or friction that we find ways to turn up or down ‘. Instead, he was attentive, he said, to “what else came into the room and went down in history” through the diverse cast, several of them queer or trans, and the variety of dance backgrounds – from ballet (Maxfield Haynes) to ballroom -vogueing. (Niala) to Butoh and experimental dance (Mina Nishimura).

“There was a lot of difference in the room, and I did my best not to let us fall into the same hole,” Jones said.

Carrying out the work at the gas station also changes this. Legacy Russell, executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen, emphasized that the station is a local, family-owned business and community site.

“What does it mean to take ‘Filling Station’ out of the theater space and operate more within the blurred boundaries of reality?” she asked.

Jones noted how “there’s already dancing going on” at the station: “the cyclists and the delivery people and the buses, all this movement and all this negotiation in this little hub.”

A dance at a gas station is also inevitably colored the recent death of O’Shae Sibleywho was singing a Beyoncé song with friends at a Midwood gas station when he was taunted with homophobic slurs and fatally stabbed.

While acknowledging what Lutz-Kinoy called “a tragic correlation” between the death and the long-developing “Filling Station” project, Jones said the creative team kept the project from “becoming a parasite” on the death of Sibley.

Still, Jones said, “These horrific events are not that rare. We are constantly dealing with queer, black, and trans death and grief, and this project does not exist outside of this reality.”

Jones said he and the rest of the creative team had been thinking about freedom. “It’s both extremely beautiful and devastating to know that in that moment, when Sibley and his friends danced to Beyoncé, they felt good,” he said. “They were in that freedom. And there had to be an attack.”

Jones and his staff at “Filling Station” are working “in the aftermath of that,” he said. Their project is “in the world and it will resonate with these moments of joy and horror.”

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