[a piece] with movement and physicality driving the work. Then we develop the psychology. Probably in the last week. That always comes much later. Keeps it fresh before the show. There’s a lot of conflict—conflict is a good thing, it helps to come up with ideas.”
Despite this last statement, there is a rare degree of quiet understanding and continual give-and-take visible in Austin and Jonathan’s relationship, during rehearsal or in conversation. At the beginning of a new piece, they develop material together in the same room, though sometimes separately in opposite corners, then combine ideas or employ parts on their own in the composition of the work. “We use each other’s instincts.”
There’s often unison movement, mirrored or side-by-side, in their own dancing together. In speaking with them, one has the impression that they are in the process of creating a single being, MADBOOTS, that is also the epitome and culmination of the strong individuality of each of its elements. A striving for honesty, and to say in movement what is often left out in words, seems to be characterize both their life together and their work.
The willingness of the two founders-choreographers of MADBOOTS to ‘go with the flow’ and not be stifled by what is already decided is illustrated in an email I received from them this week describing their second stint of working on their piece, now entitled Swan Song, for Whim W’Him: “Everything has changed since we last spoke. We threw out most of what we had originally built in the first residency with the dancers. After being away from the process for a month, we essentially started over and shifted gears. The new work has threads of iconic beauty, memory, sarcasm and tragedy. It somehow feels a little quieter.”
Jonathan started dancing when he was 8, “just because my sister danced.” Mostly his family was soccer players. At the dance class the teacher asked “Why don’t you join in?” He was attracted to the shiny patent leather of tap shoes, then took up jazz dance. He went to the Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, then on to New York to Julliard, where he finished in 2010.
Meanwhile, Austin was growing up in an all-boy family, where “dance was not a thing.” They did lots of sports. He watched MTV and videos, of Brittney Spears among others, and started dance classes at 10 in New Jersey in a small competitive studio. He applied and got into New York University, where he did more modern and ballet and gradated from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2011.
The two met toward the end of their college years. When they formed their all-male company in 2011 Jonathan was reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The little boy in the book, who has lost his father, feels he is wearing heavy boots, as a way of describing his sadness and depression in the wake of his father’s death in the September 11 attacks. Hence, fusing that reference with the idea of “madness in the unsound sense,” the name MADBOOTS. Since then, they have received a good deal of of media attention, rewards, and commissions, including residencies at Jacob’s Pillow and inclusion in Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch list. The founders of MADBOOTS also stir controversy as they refuse to be stereotyped or pinned into any simple category. They clearly strive to be and show individuals inside their own skins struggling against preconceptions about masculinity, as well as to explore the duality and complexity in every person regardless of sexual identity, and to express in movement their understanding of what it means to be human.
Photo Credits: Except the image of Jonathan and Austin (no shirts) from the MADBOOTS DANCE – MADBOOTS DANCE website, all photos are by Molly Magee of Bamberg Fine Art Photography