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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: RAWdance’s 'Loving Still', Dec 8-10, 2023, 836M Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Loving relationships between same-gender people have always existed, but bringing them out into the open has taken time.  Inspired by “LOVING: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850’s-1950’s,” RAWdance Artistic Directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith have crafted a delicious foursome of duets.  Tonight’s premiere of their Loving Still marks the culminating performances of their two-month residency at the 836M Gallery, in San Francisco’s Jackson Square. 

RAWdance’s residency brings the gallery to life, not only through open rehearsals and free performances, but also through a topic-framing exhibit. A graphic map detailing Jackson Square’s history as San Francisco’s original “gayborhood” fills one wall, while opposite hang four life-size reproductions of photos from the book. These feature the twosomes whose imagined stories the team has spent months bringing to life.  One couple lounges in bed reading a magazine, a scrappy pair of prohibition-era laborers share a bottle, a dandy duo poses in Gilded Age formal wear, and completing the quartet, two uniformed GIs nestle closely in a snapshot circa 1951.

In October, the residency’s opening event included Rein and Smith interviewing project collaborators, and local historians, Isaac Feldman of the GLFT Historical Society, and Sean Sprockett of Unspeakable Vice, about San Francisco’s untold gay past.  As an added bonus, an hour before the culminating performances, guests may partake of an edited, but still fascinating, tour of queer hot spots of old, in and around Jackson Square, led by the engaging and knowledgeable Sprockett.   

Choreographers Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith with the cast of RAWdance's 'Loving Still' - Photo: J. Norris

Relationships aren’t one size fits all and Rein (who identifies as straight) and Smith (a gay man) have done a marvelous job in creating unique embodiments to support each couple’s story. Duets have long been a throughline for this dynamic duo who have danced, worked, and lived together since creating their company in San Francisco twenty years ago. Now bi-coastal with a second artistic home in New York’s Hudson Valley, they continue to be each other’s professional better half.  

As part of RAWdance’s residency, the public has been encouraged to watch through the windows or to drop-in and experience the creation process. Seeking to demystify the at-times-obtuse art form of contemporary dance, observers have been welcomed in the gallery from the earliest days of movement experimentation through the final hours of polishing.  In attendance at several rehearsals, I observe how, with careful attention and precise direction, a hand’s specific placement or a glance’s inflection shapes a phrase. How, with input and responsiveness from dancers, the rough edges fall away and one feels definitive personas and relationships come forward.

As the performance begins, prohibition-era drinking buddies Smith and Yebel Gallegos use alcohol to lower their inhibitions in a sexy, sultry pairing that quickly raises the temperature of the room.  Peeling away the outer layers of their workman-like clothing, their desire is palpable as they hungrily roll against each other.  Smith bends over his partner’s arching form, pulling into his mouth the full cup which balances on Gallegos’s proffered crotch. Liquid runs down his chest as he rises with eyelids quaking in pleasure.  Legs are thrown around waists with abandon and exhalant lifts find a throat exposed and head tipped back in passion.

At home in each other’s arms, the second duet finds Brandon Graham and Kyle Limin lying side-by-side in bed, spooning each other. One pictures the respite they find in each other’s company at the end of the day as they reunite in their underwear with socks and sock garters still in place, vying for each other’s attention while sharing a magazine.  Their fondness for and familiarity with each other is evident in their playful interplay of a game of keep away.  Graham is the prima donna of the couple and Limin his admirer.  In a defining sequence Limin assuredly tugs Graham, seated on a sheet, toward him.  Graham rises and promenades elegantly, the sheet now a long draping gown whose train Limin carries reverentially. Soon Graham has donned an actual gown. Luxuriating in the elicit pleasure of cross dressing, the couple mirrors each other, miming earrings and long lashes, tenderly caressing each other’s cheeks. The blare of a siren disrupts their happiness. After hurriedly stripping out of the gown’s bodice, Graham stands with exposed bare chest, gazing apprehensively out a window, as Limin takes his hand, a poignant reminder that despite their comfortable home, their world is still not a safe one.

Kyle Limin, left, and Brandon Graham in RAWdance's "Loving Still"; Photo: Robbie Sweeny

It’s 1951, forty-two years before “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and in an olive-green uniform and garrison cap, Soldier Calvin L. Thomas Jr. strides forward, the limp body of his similarly clad partner, Juan L. Ruiz, draped across his arms.  Setting the body down on a bench, Thomas leans his head briefly upon his fallen lover’s chest.  Haunted by his mate’s death, Thomas seeks to revive the spirit of their coupling. Time and again Thomas grasps Ruiz, hugging him, or lifting him, only to have Ruiz with the supple joints of a ragdoll, melt fleetingly away.  Moving on, Thomas offers a dramatic solo comprised of off-kilter, nightmarish, soldierly gestures. High-kneed steps with pumping arms create shapes which should carry one forward, but somehow lead him backward. A sharply angled salute yields to a head-covering cower as imagined ordinance explode. 

In the finale, performer McKay Elwood transports us to an 1880’s ballroom with a tuneful acapella rendition of the late 19th Century Irish art song, “Just a Song at Twilight.” Elwood and his debonair dance partner Nick Wagner, wow us with their fast footwork. Tailcoats flare as they twirl from edge to edge. Tap dancing together, their mutual appreciation and enjoyment is contagious. The men lean in for a kiss, masked by a top hat which soon drops revealing them lip to lip.   This happy-go-lucky musical theater tribute leaves us flying high and provides a needed antidote to the somber outcome for the armed service lovers.

McKay Elwood, left, and Nick Wagner in 'Loving Still" - Photo: Robbie Sweeny

Experiencing this high caliber of dance outside a theater is a rare and wonderful thing.  To see it for free is even more special.  836M’s space is fairly confined, and with seating on three sides the intimacy of the space requires the dancers’ emotional presence throughout. How fortunate that this cast delivers well-rounded characterizations alongside their outstanding dancing. They are well supported by Mary Domenico’s historically accurate and functional costumes aptly based on the clothes of the origin models.  Joel St. Julien’s original score effectively evokes the complex emotional underpinnings of each relationship.

Today same-gender coupling continues to draw ire in America and across the globe, where regressive laws are on the rise. By examining queer life in the past, RAWdance’s Loving Still breathes new life into the ongoing fight for gay rights, portraying tender, affectionate, devoted and carrying partnerships.  At forty-minutes length, one hopes to see this piece offered as part of a future repertory program.

Review by Jen Norris, published December 9, 2023.



Performances are Friday, December 8 at 7pm (tour beginning from 836M at 6pm)Saturday, December 9 at 4pm and 7pm (tours at 3pm and 6pm)Sunday, December 10 at 4pm and 7pm (tours at 3pm and 6pm)


Loving Still Choreography/Direction: Wendy Rein & Ryan T. Smith

Performance/Collaboration: McKay Elwood, Yebel Gallegos, Brandon Graham, Kyle Limin, Juan L. Ruiz, Ryan T. Smith, Calvin L. Thomas, Jr., & Nick Wagner

Choreographic Assistance: Claire Fisher, Juliann Witt, & Erin Yen

Music: Joel St. Julien

Costume Design: Mary Domenico


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