MADBOOTS DANCE is a company founded and led by two dancer-choreographers, Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz, who are also life partners. Having met in 2010 as both were starting their professional careers as dancers, Campbell and Diaz soon began to collaborate in the choreography of their own duets. In time, they began to create pieces for a small ensemble of male dancers, producing such works as Sad Boys, All Fours, and Masc. Their work frequently addresses gay themes and features male-to-male contact and intimacy.
We met Diaz and Campbell at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., in 2015 (during OUT Weekend, of which The G&LR is a sponsor), where they performed Beau and Sad Boys in the Doris Duke Theatre. They kindly agreed to an interview, which was finally conducted, by phone, in late April.
The Gay & Lesbian Review: Let me start with some background questions about where you grew up and how you got into dancing. How long have you’ve been dancing? And how did you come to found Madboots?
Jonathan Campbell: I grew up in Dallas. I started dancing when I was eight or nine. I kind of started out doing tap, because I was fascinated by the tap shoes. But when I got older, I realized I hated tap and started doing jazz. I went to a performing arts high school, and I was introduced to ballet and modern, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. And then I got accepted to the Juilliard School. I graduated from there in 2010. And then I met Austin.
Austin Diaz: I grew up in New Jersey. I went to a small, local studio, and trained on my own. I started when I was about ten, and trained in jazz, tap, all that. It wasn’t until college that I really got to take modern and more ballet. I went to NYU, and I graduated in 2011. Which is actually when we met. We met at NYU.
JC: I had just finished school and started working for a choreographer in New York named Sidra Bell. She was commissioned by NYU to make a piece on the Second Avenue Dance Company. I was her assistant and Austin was in the piece. She actually hired Austin while he was still in school to join her company, so Austin and I ended up dancing together while he was still in school. We spent a lot of time together because she created a duet for us. It just kind of felt like there was a lot of chemistry artistically and dance-wise between us.
AD: It was at NYU that I rented space, and we were like, let’s fool around for a couple of hours and see if we can make something together, and we did. We made a duet, and that was sort of the birth of Madboots, in that moment. It was something that we wanted to continue doing. It took a little time to say, okay, we’re starting a dance company, but we did it pretty quickly, without understanding, really, what we were getting into and what it meant to have a dance company. So, the momentum picked up faster than we expected. But I’m glad that we did it.
G&LR: So, initially Madboots was just the two of you. At what point did you start to bring in other dancers?
AD: It was just the two of us for about a year, year-and-a-half. We were making duets at little festivals and anywhere we could perform. We’ve done some pretty embarrassing shows. We ended up performing in bars, and we did a show where no one showed up. We’ve had our share of lows when it comes to performing, but of course we’re happy to have had those experiences.
G&LR: Getting to perform at Jacob’s Pillow in 2015—how big a deal was that for you?
AD: It was a huge moment for us. We had been asked to do the Inside Out festival at Jacob’s Pillow in 2012, and that in itself was a really cool moment for us. Then we made the connection with Ella [Baff, the artistic director], and she kept in touch and offered us two residencies. Finally, the performance opportunity came in 2015, at the Doris Duke Theatre.
G&LR: That was Ella’s last year, no?
AD: It was actually her very last show. We closed the festival along with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Ella did her [farewell]speech and came over and did her last show, her last “Let’s dance!” So that was an epic moment for us.
G&LR: Do you think of Madboots as basically the two of you? Do you bring in dancers as needed, or do you have a company of dancers who stay with you?
JC: Right now we’ve moved towards a project-based model. We hire for each project that we do. The piece we’re working on now is for five dancers, but it’s always kind of shifting. The difficult thing about having an all-male company is that hiring dancers at a certain level and caliber—it’s hard to keep them, especially on a project freelance basis, because these guys can get work very quickly and easily. So, often they get these gigs that are high-paying or touring, and we can’t blame them for taking these opportunities. So it’s fluid; people come in and out; and we’ve gotten used to that. But it’s still somehow a company, even if it’s just the two of us.
G&LR: I’ve just been binge-watching the footage on your website. You guys have done some incredible work. I want to address your use of gay themes in your work. A lot of modern dancers or dancers in general are gay, but most companies don’t specifically deal with gay issues of isolation and homophobia, but you guys do so. Can you talk a little about this?
JC: It’s interesting, we started making work not necessarily with the goal of being driven from a gay male perspective or anything like that. We just wanted to make work together. It’s kind of because it’s who we are, so it’s inherent in the work that we’re making. It wasn’t until fairly recently that someone asked us, are you a gay company? We kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we are.” We’re making gay works and we’re a gay company, and we should just embrace it.
AD: In concert dance, there has been some degree of homophobia. We’ve had trouble with a couple of venues presenting our work because of the gay content. The theaters will connect to the physicality, and they really enjoy the dancing, but when it comes to the gay content, they’re not so thrilled by it. It’s tricky, but the work is the work, and people will present it who are interested in showing that kind of intimacy onstage, which a lot of people shy away from.
G&LR: In your multimedia piece called Sad Boys, you flash words like “gay” and “faggot” on the floor during the performance. Would you call this a “political” statement?
JC: And “beast.” And “I feel pretty, witty, and gay.” I think people do read it as “political,” and I guess it kind of is. But these are just comments on our experiences and the things that people go through on a daily basis. These experiences are real, but it’s perceived as political or aggressive in that way.
AD: For us, it’s just our lives.
JC: You get called “faggot” on the street; we don’t step away from those things. We try to push them forward. It does make people uncomfortable, but I think it’s okay to do that. It’s kind of necessary.
AD: We think the visibility is important, to continue to try and bring up these topics and bring them into conversation and just create more dialogue.
G&LR: Another thing I wanted to ask about was your use of spoken narrative as background, such as a passage from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. In Beau, a piece you did at Jacob’s Pillow, the lines are from the “holy” section as read by Ginsberg himself, whose voice is slowed down and deepened for the piece.
AD: We read Howl and other of his works, and it was so impactful; it affected us so deeply. I think there’s something about Ginsberg and his sense of rebellion that we really connected with. His writing has ended up in a few of our creations. I mean, there’s a lot of humanity in it, there’s a lot of vulnerability in it, and a lot of truth and bluntness in it.
G&LR: I also liked your use of a passage by David Wojnarowicz in your piece called All Fours. I guess it’s probably about AIDS and dying, but it’s also a commentary on the madness of modern civilization. What do you think?
AD: With David’s text, it was probably last fall that we found a couple of books about him, and we found these pieces of text that were so heartbreaking. It was when he was dying of AIDS that he was writing. It’s about his isolation, his feeling of voicelessness, of not being heard. He says, “I’m screaming, but it comes out like pieces of clear ice.” It’s full of heartbreaking images of trying to connect or trying to be seen, but you’re not. Which I think was a huge issue during the AIDS crisis: that these people were dying, and it was being swept aside. Even today, it’s still just as impactful and relevant—how many people feel voiceless and helpless.
G&LR: The way that you worked the words and the dance together is very intense. It’s an amazing vision. All Fours also features full nudity if I remember correctly. Was that aspect controversial, and does it present problems in terms of performance?
AD: For sure, for men in dance. It’s a little bit more accepted for women to be fully nude. But for men it does create more problems. We were performing another work—Sad Boys, which we’ve sort of edited since we premiered at the Pillow. Ella was totally fine with the nudity, but it has gone through a bit of an evolution after one presenter had a problem with it. Had it been a woman, the theater would have been okay with it. The fact that it was male genitalia was a problem. We were kind of stunned by that, and it was kind of infuriating. Basically, we just turned the lights very low. We made a compromise, which is sadly what artists sometimes have to do. However, I think nudity is becoming more prevalent in our work. It just is a vulnerable state of being—the exposure. Even going in to All Fours—it wasn’t like we were thrilled about doing it nude, but we knew it needed to be done that way. Experiencing it alone onstage in real time—it changes you.
G&LR: Let me ask you about your influences, and where you would place your work in the context of modern dance.
JC: We’ve been asked this before, but I don’t know that there’s a good label for it, because it feels like our work is constantly shifting. The movement language, the æsthetic, even the way we set up the stage—we feel like we’ve kind of gotten to a certain place where we are already moving forward to change it.
G&LR: I’m fascinated by the creative process, especially with dance, because it seems to evolve in a more spontaneous way than, say, writing. You talked at the beginning about how you work together, how you start playing around with some ideas, and it seems like the work starts to take on a life of its own. Is that a reasonable description of how it works?
JC: It can. It has been different for each project. Sometimes we come in knowing exactly what we’re trying to do. We know how the piece starts and how it ends, and we’ll fill in the middle. Or we come in with just a title, and the piece kind of grows out of that.
AD: For our next creation, we have a thirty-minute piece of music that we want to use. This is something that we’ve never done before.
JC: We’re starting with the music, without knowing anything else. So, I think the starting point is different with each project. There have been processes where we started with just a phrase, and we come in and start making moves. We don’t know where it will go or what we’re going to do with it, because it kind of snowballs and things start to fall in place.
AD: And we kind of let our lives come in, and there are so many things that will happen just randomly, like a song will come up in a movie, or—
JC: Or even the people, when we’re working with other people and they say or do something, and it kind of triggers something and it gets absorbed into the work. So, speaking of influences, they can be music, texts, poetry, fashion. We look at the fashion blogs on-line and the way things are designed. So, it’s really sort of this big amalgamation of all of these elements.
G&LR: With all these ideas and influences, how do you keep track of all this while you’re putting a piece together? Dance is notoriously difficult to notate.
AD: Our notebooks are full of gibberish, like random words that someone said in rehearsal. We generate a lot and throw it away or lose track of it, and we kind of feel okay with that. We try not to be too precious or sentimental about material. If it drifts away, it probably wasn’t meant to be held onto.
G&LR: So, what’s next for you guys?
JC: Right now, we’re sort of multitasking, because next month we’re showing a shorter version of All Fours at Gibney Dance Center in New York as a part of a short program, so we’re kind of excited about bringing that back. We only really performed it that one time at NYU Tisch, so we’re really happy to be performing it again. After that, our new work is called Masc, and we’re doing a preview of it at Tisch on June 6th and 7th. It will have its premiere in Seattle at the end of June.