Photo by Justine LaViolette
Photo by Justine LaViolette

Gender Tender is a truly fascinating and uplifting performance art duo (and real life couple!)and I’ve seen them perform a couple of different times now. What I love most is how they take the similar themes (gender, self-expression, transcendence) and create something new and fabulous every single time. Their work is so evocative and rare that they’ve already performed at some of the most important queer venues in the Twin Cities in spite of being fairly new in town. This includes Patrick’s Cabaret and opening for 20% Theatre Company’s upcoming Naked I run. As an artist-activist myself, I’m equally inspired by their dedication to their workshops where others can explore their own gender expression.

In both their performance and workshops, they combine performance art with their writing, pulling from their real life experiences and identities. There are a lot of LGBTQQIAP+ performing arts groups who accomplish much of this kind of work, but Gender Tender stands out and above the crowd because they consistently seem like they are having fun, and because they give the audience the feeling that art is the sandbox where they play and explore their deeper themes. No one Gender Tender performance like another, and there is always an uplifting, bright feeling to their work. Here’s more about this binary busting duo, in their own words.

Good Evening! Tell me a little bit about yourselves and Gender Tender.

Syniva: my name’s Syniva Whitney (pronouns they/them…she/her happens but I prefer they/them).
Will: My name’s Will Courtney, and my pronoun is Will, but I use he/him, too.

S: We are the lead performers, real life couple, and hella queer artist instigators behind Gender Tender. Gender Tender is an interdisciplinary performance project that prioritizes transgender, non-binary + multiracial perspectives in process and presentation. I’m the choreographer and artistic director type person. We like to say I’m the starship captain and Will is the Riker. We like to keep it experimental and use processes we love: improvisational and contemporary dance and acting techniques, somatic movement ideas, conceptual drag, sculptural and filmic practices and more are all a part of our method. I like to think we are the sort of performance baby that would have resulted from a magical orgy involving Levar Burton, a bunch of genderqueer riot grrls, Warhol, Yoko Ono, Magnum P.I., 80s cartoons, Deepak Chopra, Grace Jones and Bob Fosse. Okay, that’s probably not accurate, that’s a lot of brilliant weird shit…maybe we aren’t that awesome but we wish we were. We started the project in 2012 in Seattle and relocated to Minneapolis about a year ago. We believe this is a great place to grow a sustainable and innovative arts practice as well as maintain a good quality of life in town that values and supports what we do. The Twin Cities has a lot of exciting and interesting dance and performance happening in all different kinds of venues and spaces. That was a big draw, too.

W: We make performances that happen onstage and sometimes different places like galleries or outside.Sometimes we perform in other people’s stuff. Separately and together.

S: We also offer classes that share our methods. Our workshops are an interdisciplinary mix (heavy on the improvisational dance and acting stuff)of techniques. Primarily we like to have fun and any body is welcome at any experience level whether they are just curious or they are a seasoned performer or dancer, or maybe a writer, musician or visual artist just looking to get inspired by exploring different techniques….really any interested human. Jazz hands are optional. Usually.

How would you describe Gender Tender to me if I had no clue what art, especially performance art even was?
W: Dancetalkcomedyserious.
S: I’ll say ditto to that.

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Awesome. Moving on now that we see who you are and what you do, one thing I personally am really interested as both an activist and an artist is “Why art?” How do you see art’s function in the life of an activist?
W: As a trans artist I think performance art can be a really effective way to communicate complex ideas about gender identity and personal relationships.
S: That’s a heavy question….if being dedicated to a process that results in shared creative experiences made by people that have notoriously underrepresented viewpoints and social currency, that’s “why art” for me. I don’t know if that’s activism, maybe to some, I’m not sure… I think being an artist is work that is important. I think people can feel the kind of imbalance that happens when arts culture isn’t being supported or nurtured in their community. We do our best to make art that is in conversation with the now, the murky now, the blurry past, the infuriating digital age, the ridiculous. I think it’s important to follow the thread that pulls at our hearts, that sensation that rubs us the wrong way. I think art gets at these impossible to say places.

When did you realize how powerful artistic expression could be for you, and where did you go from there?
S: Probably a past life. I don’t remember. I will go onward from there to here?
W: Ditto. Also we met at Shakespeare camp as teenagers but didn’t start doing it until way later. Performing I mean. And the other thing.

Do you mind telling me a bit about your process when developing a piece?
S: Process for me always starts with a spark. That could be a certain movement or phrase or topic that just keeps being interesting for me. For example, we do these kind of spectrum explorations as a part of our method. For awhile I was obsessed with the poetic and gendered weirdness of HEELS and FLATS. So we did a bunch of exploring. I looked into the history of high heels, found out they were a European invention initially made only for men and that the added height was a power thing–kind of like the higher the hair, the closer to God but in this instance it was the higher up, the more likely to be a rich fuck. This research led to doing movement experiments in the dance studio by myself, experimenting with the physical territory between being flat footed and elevated. Then I brought Will and other artists into the mix playing with this movement during workshops and rehearsals. I made some latex heels to attempt to realize the idea of a high heel that would just fail that performers could wear while dancing. The whole thing led to a full length dance and theater piece called HEELS and FLATS performed in Seattle at the 2013 Fringe Festival with an ensemble of 16 artists from all different backgrounds.

What is the most important thing for audiences to take away from seeing your work?
W: I want people to feel engaged, I want them to be there with me in it.
S: I want people to feel immersed in a different world. I want people to imagine the possibilities of all the ways things can be, all the weird ways things are, all the things that can happen in between. I believe unimaginative binary thinking creates stifling and toxic environments inside and outside of people. I believe in all that is multi-layered, unknown, intersectional, complex, weird, unique. I don’t know if our performances make that possible for audiences but what we make is rooted in that kind of thinking for sure.

Who or what inspires and informs your work the most?
W: I guess my biggest inspirations as a performer right at this moment are…hmmm…Shakespeare, and I’ve been thinking about Robert DeNiro a lot. He has such a wonderful subtlety as a performer that I really like, a kind of stoicism he brings while also presenting characters that are deeply emotional.

S: Wow…I could go on forever. That always changes for me. Currently I’m very inspired by the dances I see in competitive cooking shows, the tragic story of Whitney Houston, being grossed out by the Bill Cosby drama, and I’ve listening to a lot of Phillip Glass and Nina Simone lately. Also the way animals go from graceful to awkward to still in the blink of an eye is my jam. Also I’ve been obsessing over the overlooked way public spaces and places are gendered, surreal, hilarious and dangerous for transgender, non binary and gender non conforming people.

W: The best thing I’ve seen lately was a movie at the Trylon microcinema called Branded to Kill directed by Seijin Suzuki. It was intoxicating. Making it got him fired from his job, I guess. It had violence and absurdity and moments that seemed like improvisational scores to me.

S: The best thing I’ve seen lately is the real life action adventure at the downtown library here in Minneapolis. It’s just epic in there yet so quiet. Architecturally it’s so huge and weirdly futuristic like a Star Trek episode but at the same time it’s got a cozy feel, and lots of calm mini-dramas and banal conversations. I admit one of my favorite things to watch is people thinking, and people sleeping, and that happens a lot at libraries. I also like watching all different kinds of people move and stare at things, libraries are great for that. Also just going outside works. I do that, too.

Photo by Sara Ann Davidson
Photo by Sara Ann Davidson

Of the millions of amazing things you’ve done and created, what are some of the things you’re the most proud of?
W: We did this duet called Ever/What at 12 Minutes Max at On the Boards in Seattle a few years ago. It’s part creepy modern dance, part Syniva’s latex sculptures, part satire of Jerry McGuire. That was really the beginning for me, being like, yeah, I’m doing this, Gender Tender is really doing something. There was a lot of great response from the audience. I felt like they were really engaged with what we were really engaged in. Actually, I’ve never been in a Gender Tender performance I wasn’t into or proud of.

S: I always feel into the work and proud of it. Part of why I wanted to start a project where we made our own stuff was to commit to making certain the process was engaging and nourishing from the inside out, for us by us. Performers first. I think that feeling gets communicated to the audience and they can get from it what they will if they are interested in what we are doing, but we agreed to always be interested in what we are doing no matter who’s watching. I really loved the last duet we did at the Pitch Dark Cabaret at Patrick’s Cabaret curated by Scott Artley. I’m proud of the way we did risky stuff, and created work that was to take place in complete darkness. And because I’m me and we are us I had a lot of fun rebelling against that limitation and finding ways to use light in a way that felt vital to the mood we wanted to create. Gender Tender always strives to be a bad influence on any kind of set performative structure (wink, wink). Meet us outside in the parking lot during the pep rally.

What’s next or coming up for you?
S: Gender Tender will be at THE NAKED I: SELF-DEFINED February 12-20, 2016 at Intermedia Arts we are performing a pre-show event starting 30 minutes prior to each performance called “CHOSEN/FAMILY”, a scored improvisation inspired by the idea of the queer chosen family featuring cast and crew from the NAKED I as well as Twin Cities artists and community members we invited to join us. We will also premiere our latest full length performance, Bent/Straight, at the Q-STAGE new works series also at Intermedia Arts in May 20-22, 2016. Both of these events are produced by the 20% Theater Company Twin Cities. We are also currently writing responses to and co-hosting post show discussions at the Walker Art Center’s Out There festival of performance alternatives throughout the month of January. Check out the Green Room blog on the Walker site for our reviews.

(Tickets for the NAKED I: SELF DEFINED available here).

Where can we find you online if we wanted to know more or contact you?
Email us at teamgendertender@gmail.com, you can also find us at www.gendertender.tumblr.com and on Facebook www.facebook.com/gendertenderforever. We do our best to post about upcoming performances workshops and more.

Anything else?
Come to our shows! Come to our workshops and classes and stuff! Say hi! We would love to meet you.

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