I try to embrace the inevitable prospect of aging. It beats the alternative, which — despite the vociferous and egregious arguments of anti-aging gurus — is death.
It’s not an easy outlook to maintain, especially as a single gay man peering at 50 on the not-too-distant horizon. So a conversation with the seemingly inexhaustible 61-year-old queer director, choreographer, teacher and dancer Brian Webb is, to say the least, encouraging.
Webb started dancing more than 40 years ago and founded Brian Webb Dance as the company in residence at Grant McEwan College in 1979. His company began presenting its own season in 1991 and is now the largest contemporary dance season west of Toronto. A committed collaborationist, Webb’s company has commissioned scripts, installations by visual artists and 30 musical scores.
His latest solo piece, 30% Gone, is being presented as part of Vancouver’s Dancing on the Edge (July 5 to 14, at various locations around the city).
Performed with a live trio of musicians, 30% Gone is Webb’s comment on the sexualizing of the aging queer body, as well as a response to some very personal events in his recent past — specifically, the death of his father a year and a half ago and the heart attack he suffered last October.
“I didn’t have a heart attack. I had a big, fucking heart attack!” he tells me in a phone interview from his Edmonton home.
“They rushed me straight through emergency and into the operating room. The last thing I remember saying before going under was, “Don’t lose those jeans! They’re Dior and they cost me 700 bucks!”
He didn’t lose his jeans that night. He lost much more. The 30 percent in the title refers to the percentage of his heart that ostensibly died as a result of the attack.
“The day after, I looked different. All of a sudden, I was grey. Really grey. It forced me to see myself differently — as vulnerable. I was always very hedonistic, but I can’t do that any more.”
30% Gone isn’t about what he can’t do anymore. It’s about what he can do, and who he is now.
“Your inspiration is who you are today,” he says.
Today, he is a queer man just entering the seventh decade of his life, a performer in an industry notorious for the short-lived careers of its artists, and someone who has always lived his life quite publicly, describing his work as “art through self-portraiture.”
30% Gone is the latest of these self-portraits. On his website, Webb describes the piece as being “informed by the shock I felt from having the attack, about my recovery, and about my defiance of it [not my denial of it]. It’s also about the fact that I’m not very comfortable with being 60 YEARS OLD!”
That discomfort resonates for most of us — regardless of gender or orientation. In fact, it resonates with most of us regardless of our actual age. As Webb observes, “with aging, we begin to feel invisible.”
What is inspiring about Webb is his head-on response to that threat of invisibility. And he is anything but invisible in 30% Gone. He begins the piece in an Armani suit — the picture of the Corporate Gay. But in the 26 minutes that follow, he strips out of the suit and dances in his underwear, pink silk panties, a pink chiffon baby-doll, and naked.
“It’s about vibrancy. One still has one’s desires. And desire is a huge motivator. Sex and desire are not the same thing, but they’re linked. It’s important for me to use everything in my means to make me feel vibrant and alive.”
Having now performed 30% Gone in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Regina, Webb thinks the piece’s themes of sex, mortality and the aging queer body are speaking strongly to a broad cross-section of the queer community.
“I’m using a frank language that we all understand — we’re all aging. It doesn’t necessarily paint a pretty picture. Even though in my baby-doll I’m pretty cute.”