On Art and Gender with YoungArts Alum, Laganja Estranja
September 12, 2018admin
Art is the ultimate portal through which we can not only express our truest selves, but also connect with our fellow beings near and far in an unspoken language of creativity. It’s through art where we truly begin to understand. More and more we find our world in dire need of supporting the arts so as to support humanity and the very essence of communication. It’s through this need that organizations like YoungArts have been born–ensuring the survival of self-expression for generations to come.
The National YoungArts Foundation identifies and nurtures the most accomplished young artists in the visual, literary, design and performing arts. They assist these budding artists at critical junctures in their educational and professional development. Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, and Josh Groban are among notable alumni, each a leader in their respective fields. But aside from generating an impressive roster of performers and creators, YoungArts supports these artists’ messages no matter how revolutionary or vibrant.
American choreographer and drag queen known as Laganja Estranja is also a YoungArts alum and making waves through dance. Aside from competing on the beloved “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Jay Jackson is a fierce advocate for gender equality among many other social issues. This month, Jackson will be embarking on a three-week residency spearheaded by YoungArts that will engage with the communities in ways Miami hasn’t experienced before.
From workshops as part of Laganja’s Dance School to a full-on Fan Dance Party and Drag Show at PAMM on September 20th, get ready to dive deep into the narrative of full-spectrum equality. The entire residency culminates in the premiere of a new immersive dance theater piece performed for the public inside the YoungArts Jewel Box on September 28th. Ramping up for this incredible initiative, we got to talk to Jackson about the beautiful YoungArts relationship, being an illusionist, and more. Check it out!
How fundamental to your art and career would you say your participation with YoungArts has been?
YoungArts set the tone for my future as an artist. As a high school student at 18, being exposed to other incredible artists from around the United States as well as professionals already working in my field, changed my perspective on what it means to be a dancer. As I’ve matured and continued to return to work as a resident assistant in the YoungArts program each year, I’m inspired over and over again by the blossoming talent that I am able to see. YoungArts has truly been fundamental to being the artist that I am today!
You have classified yourself as an “illusionist” – can you explain what that means and how it’s manifested through your art and choreography?
An illusionist is someone who creates magic before your very eyes. More specifically for me, as a drag queen, I am playing with gender through makeup and costuming, tricking the eye. Moreover, with my choreography, I explore body posture and language to enhance the illusions I create.
How important do you think gender and sexual expression is for artists? For your art?
Gender and sexual expression is of the utmost importance today as more genders are being recognized. For me specifically, gender has been important not only in my art but also in who I am as a person.
Have you always identified as you do currently? Or has it been a longer journey that has brought you to where you are now?
For some, gender is a continuous journey that’s more about the process rather than the final result. Before living with a transgender woman, I would have simply have identified myself as a gay male. Having now had that experience, I feel freer to express gradients of gender and fully embrace my feminine side. It has changed my view of myself, which is why I now identify as non-binary.
How has dance helped you along this journey in self-expression? Would you champion the art form for everyone on a similar path?
Dance is a universal language, and I have seen that through my travels in many countries where I do not speak the predominant language. Through movement, we can communicate emotions and express what we feel when words sometimes fail us. I truly believe dance is for everyone, and we were born to move our bodies.
Has the journey brought you to cathartic moments of inspiration? Anything that has manifested into the current residency?
Yes, through dance I’ve experienced many moments of catharsis, including mourning a broken relationship as well as experiencing joy over a newfound friendship. Dance can be therapy and therapist all in one. While gender has long been a focus for me, and was in fact a focus for my previous workshop in Manchester, England, my involvement in the drag world has made me even more conscious of how impactful the concept of gender is in our lives. I hope that this much lengthier residency will give me the chance to explore and learn more about gender, both for myself and as a concept.
Talk to us about what audiences can expect in the residency.
Audiences can expect to be taken on an otherworldly journey through the gradient of gender. The performance will utilize all five senses–sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell–to create an atmosphere of its own. Through immersive and participatory experiences, audience members will become one with the art-makers.
How has your participation in RuPaul’s Drag Race helped your career?
RuPaul’s Drag Race has given me a much larger presence in the drag world and has allowed me to reach a wider audience for my platform of advocacy, kindness, and inclusion. For me personally, it has meant greater financial stability and the chance to travel and explore other cultures as well as to spread love and art.
Do you have anything to say to those who might be experiencing drag for the first time?
For those experiencing drag for the first time, sit back, relax, be prepared to laugh, expect the unexpected, and know society’s gender norms will be challenged. For those involved in our workshop experience, know that we will be exploring all genders and not simply looking at performers in drag–be prepared to experiment with your concept of gender.
Do you see a future where all genders/sexual identifications etc. live and express themselves together equally? Is this a hope for you?
Yes, that is my greatest hope and is why I am tackling these concepts of gender with this residency. I believe in the end it doesn’t matter how you identify because we are all the same.
How much does activism play into your work?
It is important to me as an artist that my art be seen as more than just mindless entertainment. I believe that successful art challenges the audience’s way of thinking and encourages exploration outside the norm. As an activist, it is my goal to create safe spaces where reflections and reactions of authenticity can occur.
Any advice for those going through a similar journey of self-identification?
To quote my RPDR sister, Mayhem Miller, “You are all beautiful. Don’t let anybody ever tell you different.”
Cover Photo by Aaron Jay Young.