The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.
Note: Transpose 2022 was filmed by CN Lester's team and will be made available to the public. I can't overstate how important an act this is, as my review will explore more generally.
At the Barbican in London on Friday evening, I took a friend to watch the poignant, funny and beautiful Transpose – a kind of trans cabaret originally conceived in 2011 by the multi-talented CN Lester and now organized by them on a near annual basis. As I watched and was immersed in each episode of the show, a thought came to me about the transitory nature of this genre of performance art within the space of theatre. With urgency, we have to record these events in as many mediums as possible. Because this feels like a vivid, vital history happening on the margins, the kind that is too often lost while more materially enduring art – the trans memoir and the film – dominate trans history, including artistic expression. This domination is problematic on all kinds of levels, not least because the publishing company and the film studio will only ever invest in projects (and trans people) of acceptability to largely white, cisgender audiences, with queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC) barely mentioned, their experience silenced. The result is that the memoir and film by or about trans people have tended to be particularly compromised visions or exclusionary ones, much more so than the cabaret or reading, or the self-published short story or song. Arguably, these latter forms of art are where trans identity feels most genuinely to belong to the transgender artist, whatever their creed or colour. This makes Transpose 2022 an especially important show for the talents that it features.
For this 2022 version, directed by Tabby Lamb (of the play Since U Been Gone, 2019), and curated by the renowned short-film director Campbell X, the show featured three performers putting QTPOC performance art at centre stage: singer Mzz Kimberley, and performance artists Ebony Rose Dark and Felix Mufti. Mzz Kimberley was the songbird with a Shirley-Bassey grandiosity and a Marlene-Dietrich sassiness, while her recurring comments on her virginal sexuality provided some of the added play and shared humour with the audience. Felix Mufti was the Gen-Z intruder in this respect, combining twirking and hip-hop with defiant prayers and a Scouse swagger; at the end of one particularly exhausting routine, they marched off with a ‘I’m not fooking doin’ that again’ to the audience’s shock and delight. Finally there was Ebony Rose Dark, whose dance/performance pieces brought a surrealness and a particular visual uniqueness to proceedings. Several moments especially stood out for me during the show: Felix Mufti playing a video of themselves singing a song pre-transition, and then accompanying the song in a duet, this time transitioned; Mzz Kimberley’s spot-lighted song in a scarlet sequin dress hitting high notes, the humour set aside, then gliding off into the darkness; Ebony Rose Dark in gold sequin ‘Spartan’ headdress, gold-lame dress and rods of gold and chrome, swirling slowly in rhythm to the music, then in another act, as a giant, rainbow dildo, moving and wobbling rhythmically to the music. The work of Campbell X too was essential to the evening with the opening short film on the history of trans people of colour being particularly striking. It established the vision for the rest of the show: of the diverse, talent-rich, parallel histories of queer, gender non-conformity in communities of colour, histories often ignored in white LGBT+ spaces and the larger cisgender society.
Transpose 2022, then, came and went like a beautiful dream; but the dream analogy is also a warning that something vital – a history of QTPOC experience and art and vision – risks being lost if we don’t record for posterity these amazing events.