“…a dance style that is a once nakedly exposed and yet curiously wrapped in an enigma,” writes the ‘Oberon’s Grove’ music and dance blog about the work of MADBOOTS, the dance company of Austin Diaz and Jonathan Campbell, partners in both life and art. The New York-based choreographic duo was chosen by Whim W’Him’s dancers to create one of the three pieces that will make up the second Whim W’Him Choreographic Shindig 2016 at Erickson Theatre (Brown Paper Tickets) Off Broadway in Seattle, September 9-17. Watching rehearsal back at the end of June, the first thing I was struck by was the fast, fierce and fearless physicality MADBOOTS requires of the dancers, the all-out quality of the movement. No holds barred, almost literally. “There is something about exhausting the body and leaving an imprint on the floor…” the choreographers say.
MADBOOTS: “It is our mission to question the physicality of artistic expression. By creating complex and theatrical environments steeped in athleticism, the work revels in antithetical aesthetics and uncomfortable realities, often exploring the many facets of the masculine identity. As queer artists, we feel the topic is ever-present in our work, but it is not the sole agenda. Regardless of gender and sexuality, a through line of humanity is integral to the work.”
As they characterized it earlier this summer, in the counterpoint way they have of talking (though in public forums Jonathan acts as their main spokesman), “Usually we start
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