Success means Brontez Purnell feels like an imposter in his own body. A 2018 Whiting Award in fiction for his book, Since I Laid My Burden Down, being named one of 32 essential “black male writers of our time” by The New York Times, and other accolades that followed are cool. But as cofounder with Sophia Wang of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company, the Oakland-based artist became stuck in writer’s world and mostly sat at a desk, pumping out words for Cakeboy, Maximum Rock & Roll, Harpers, and others.
Diving back into dance in preparation for San Francisco’s FRESH Festival (Jan. 6-26) is testing him, body and soul, Brontez said in an interview. “When you’re younger, people pay you for that young body,” he said. “People don’t always want to see the thing that’s not so fresh. I wanted to relearn how to walk or to come back after a long absence. Why do I keep doing this? What more do I want from this?”
In addition to choreographing, performing, and directing dance projects, the native of Triana, Alabama is author of the cult zine Fag School, frontman for the punk band The Younger Lovers, a former dancer with the electro-clash band Gravy Train!!!, a multimedia filmmaker, a proponent for the force and beauty of queer love, proud inhabitant of a Black male body … and a bit of a girl.
“Yeah, people call, hear my girl-voice, then ask if they can speak to someone older,’ Purnell said. “Or they ask for Brontez, thinking I’m not me.”
Lately, Purnell has had similar “I’m not me” thoughts. His new dance piece, Tender Dub Remix, he said is “a movement chain letter with a Dub musical score that’s between me, Middle Eastern girls that started rave collective Club Chai, and the sound artists.” He said he wanted to try creating something “with restraint and easy,” but don’t be fooled. The music is sourced by dubbing in interviews with his mother that he recorded in a hospital after she suffered a profound medical setback. “There’s some singing, notation on Genesis — that sounds too stuffy … it’s about healing. About the body when it has to relearn how to talk or walk.”
Purnell earned a B.F.A. in Theatre and Contemporary Dance at California State University, East Bay. Now, as a 37-year-old dancer, he said, “I’ve spent years training so movement is still in my body. But I experience my body on a whole fucking different level. I feel hyper vulnerable. I’ve always felt that in my practice. I was a go-go-boy, in my underwear, shaking it. I was also working at the 24-hour diner. One weekend, boys were ripping my underwear off, the next week, I was serving them fries and shit.”
He arrived in the Bay Area in 2002. FRESH festival co-curator José Navarrete said the queer culture scene is far more conservative now. Referring to Purnell as a valiant provocateur and gifted performer, Navarrete said, “There’s disruption in something in his work you think will be fun, and then it’s not. He’s open with his sexuality. Seeing his naked body onstage, you see how gay people used to express sexuality in the Bay Area: amazing parties, enjoying it, being on the street, not being afraid to be different. When I see Brontez, he holds those ideas in his body. He’s free with his body.”
Addressing the festival’s theme — “tender” — Purnell brings a mature perspective to his process. “I danced mostly in African companies; they’d always say older dancers are allowed to dance gracefully and peacefully,” he said, before adding: “Don’t let me fucking fool you, there’ll be parts that are obnoxious too.”
Crafting art — a book, dance, film — is for him a game of riddles. What might surprise even people familiar with Purnell, is that behind the work’s raw, no-corners-unexplored abandon is tensile structure; rigorous attention to theme, Motif, and variation; and kinesthetic sophistication that, ironically, undergird his admittedly fragmented thoughts. Making Tender, with one dancer living in Los Angeles and the musicians spread like a diaspora, he said collaboration is easily in his toolbox, but is not king. “We live in the Bay, so people love the word “collective.” They want to share in success, smooth sailing, with one or two people doing all the work and others chiming in and there you have it.”
With maturity has come greater confidence in an authoritative voice. “I can enter any situation and not have anything chaotic totally go down. I’m like a benevolent dictator though. I put my name on it. When you take chances like I do, I’d rather have my name there if something goes fucking wrong.”
He also listens; intrigued by classifications audiences assign. One example: Seeing his black gay body onstage with Wang’s female, Ph.D. candidate Asian body, people assume he is the leader and she, the student. It reveals more about the observers than about Purnell or his work. “Because I play with strong signifiers, I wonder if I’m being too much, but also know that people will think what they want to think,” he said. “I’m most interested in the conversation caused, less the “I’m put in a straightjacket” angle.”
Purnell believes queer people have “won the visibility war,” but remains leery of assuming they’ve arrived. That kind of take-it-for-granted laziness, he said leads to paradoxes like winning the right to gay marriage, but HIV rates for Black and Latino men in the deep south remaining egregious and ignored.
Asked if the essence of his work would suffer if monetary success were to follow critical and popular recognition, Purnell said, “I would love to try it and see, shit! There’s nothing I’m going to share with regular Joe Americans and not scare the hell out of them. But a blockbuster or two, I’d fucking like that. I don’t fear anything I’d make.”
Reflecting on childhood and why he changed his given name from Justin to Brontez, Purnell said, “There were too many Justins. I was sick of being gay black Justin.” Future plans include a solo work, new installments for his video series 100 Boyfriends Mixtape, a film, and more teaching. “If you’re not teaching, you’re not seeing the kind of art you want to see in the world.” Brontez Purnell remains a black queer body, looking and every day, finding itself new.