Talking dance with the mad boys of MADBOOTS

Austin Diaz and Jonathan Campbell of MADBOOTS (Nir Arielli)

Austin Diaz and Jonathan Campbell of MADBOOTS (Nir Arielli)

Adorable couple Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz founded the all-male dance troupe MADBOOTS in 2011. The emerging company, which has quickly become the buzz of the contemporary dance world, makes its Atlanta debut on March 4 as part of the Off the EDGE dance festival at the Rialto Center for the Arts.

WUSSY caught up with the boys of MADBOOTS at their home in the commuter town of Clifton, New Jersey, to chat about their work, growing up as gay dancers, and the challenges of living and creating together 24/7.


I guess why don't you start off by telling us a little bit about what we'll be seeing in Atlanta.

Jonathan: We'll be doing Beau. It's a duet we created in 2014. It's gone through a lot of shifts since we first showed it in New York. The version we're bringing to Atlanta is the same as the one that premiered at Jacob's Pillow this past summer. What can I say about it? It's highly physical, it's schematic, it has a very diverse music landscape.

And it's a work for the two of you?

Jonathan: Yes, it's a duet.

Tell me about the title Beau. What does that refer to?

Jonathan: The original version ended with the song "Beautiful Boy" by John Lennon. We just liked this idea of being beautiful in someone else's eyes. That's where Beau came from. The piece is actually quite dark and it deals with heavy topics so we kind of wanted to have something that was sort of opposing that theme, to tap into that idea of beauty and innocence because the piece grapples with things that aren't that way at all. The piece was born out of a book we were reading about suicide and that's kind of what planted the seed for the piece. It kind of sets up a conflict between the title and the nature of the piece.

You mentioned the piece originally ended with a song by John Lennon. That's not in there anymore? What is the music now?

Jonathan: No, it's not in it anymore. When we first showed it as a work in progress, it was 45 minutes long. It was a very difficult duet. We wanted to dig a little deeper and chip away the things that were maybe a bit excessive or weren't driving the point so much. It got refined down to 25 minutes. We had to let certain things go. Musically, it's really diverse. We've got some classical music, some pop music, trap music, ambient, electronic. It really goes all over the place.



You mentioned it's a difficult duet. I don't imagine this is exactly what you were referring to, but I'm curious to ask you guys about being both creative partners in the studio and also romantic partners outside of it. Do you find you take home problems from the studio and vice-versa? Is it easy to keep that sort of thing separate?

Jonathan: No. I wouldn't say that it's easy at all. The work is constantly present. It's always in the air with us. We're in the studio and then we'll leave to go get lunch and we're still talking about it. And we get home at ten o'clock at night and we're still talking about it. It's ever-present, which is hard.

Austin: Even being four years in, we're figuring out how to negotiate our time. When is it work time and when is it personal time? It's hard to shift your mind when you're always with the other person. But we're getting better about it, I would say. We're figuring it out. But it's also really great in a way. The reason we have this company and we're doing what we're doing is because we felt that we were both on the same page and on the same wavelength about the kind of work and the kind of art we wanted to make. It's also a really beautiful thing to have that person who just gets you and gets it right away. It's kind of creepy too. We both keep notebooks where we put ideas in. Sometimes we'll show each other our notebooks, and we'll literally have the same thing written down. It's odd but I think it works for us.


Your company and your works are all male. Why is that?

Jonathan: When we first started working togeter, we spent the first year/year-and-a-half making duet work examining the topic of the expectation of masculinity, what the social constructs are of being "a man." We got into conversations about what it was like growing up, feeling different than other people,  other boys. We got into the expectations of our families, the schools we went to. The queer aspect also started to filter in. The work immediately became more personal. To keep pushing through and digging through those ideas, it just made sense to have a company of men to deal with these topics of masculinity from the gay perspective. It just didn't make sense to have a mixed group. Also, we just kind of felt there was a lack of representation when it comes to male groups. There's usually a schtick or some sort of commercial, flashy aspect about being all guys.

Austin: It becomes about strength and power.

Jonathan: We kind of wanted to counter that a little bit with something else.

Austin: To show the other side, to show being sensitive, being vulnerable.

Jonathan: It just made sense.


Is there homophobia in the world of contemporary dance or are there just so many gay men in the field that it's pretty much absent?

Jonathan: I wouldn't say it's absent.

Austin: It's not absent.

Jonathan: I don't know that it's completely forthright and homophobic, but I feel like there are certain images that certain presenters or theaters or festivals have to use to appeal to a heteronormative audience. If something challenges that, they're scared of it.

Austin: There's definitely a resistance.

Jonathan: We've gotten comments, 'This is too gay.' 'Too intimate.' 'No one wants to see this.'

Austin: They want see a man and a woman partnering.

Jonathan: Which I guess is, in a way, homophobic. I think it comes less from the theater's personal feelings as opposed to kind of catering to what their audience wants. We've definitely come up against it and people have been afraid to show our work. But I think what attracts theaters to what we do is the high physicality of the work, so they're conflicted with us. They're really attracted to the movement and the feeling, but a little bit scared of the content. We've definitely come up against that resistance before.


Would you say that a gay male dancer moves differently than a straight male dancer and is that something you're interested in exploring in your work?

Austin: That's an interesting question. We've worked with straight male dancers in our work. I wouldn'y say necessarily there's a difference. I could see for some people there would be a difference. There is this struggle, this internal struggle, to not come off effeminate. That's challenging at times. But if the person is comfortable with themselves and their sexuality, there really isn't too much of an issue.




Could you talk about your path growing up as gay men and becoming professional dancers?

Jonathan: I grew up in Texas. I think I was just lucky that I was able to go to a performing arts high school, which was a very free and open place. The second I got there, I felt myself dropped into who I was. That was a very fortunate experience for me. I moved to New York, went to Julliard and right out of school, I started working with choreographer Sidra Bell, who also very much opened my eyes to different ways of moving, thinking, performing. It totally shifted my thoughts about being on stage, what it meant to connect to the audience, to not connect to the audience. Being in New York has been really influential with how we perceive art making.

Austin: I grew up in New Jersey. I went to a small studio here. And then I applied to NYU and got in. That's when I started to open up and feel more comfortable in my skin. It was a little tough growing up.

Jonathan: He grew up with three older brothers, and they were wild, so he had an interesting childhood.

Austin: It was a little different than Jonathan's. I went to NYU and I actually met Sidra Bell when I was in my last year and she asked me to come on for a project. That's where I met Jonathan, when we were working together.


Would you guys say that you met and that what started as artistic collaboration turned into romance or was it more that romance developed and then you realized how much you had in common aesthetically?

Jonathan: We started working with Sidra Bell roughly at the same time. There was a period of getting to know each other professionally as artists and working within a freelance company. Eventually we spent a lot of time together. She was creating a duet for the two of us so we had a lot of rehearsals just the two of us. We spent a lot of time together and then it became a lot of time outside of the studio. That's when the relationship started. We realized we had this chemistry together and we started to wonder what it would be like to make something together. We rented a studio and just started creating together and it hasn't stopped since then. I definitely think the personal relationship started before the collaborative artistic one.


Sidra Bell's company has visited Atlanta to perform at Atlanta's Goat Farm several times so I imagine you've been to the city before?

Austin: I think we've been three times.

Jonathan: We're happy to be coming back to Atlanta as MADBOOTS and bringing our work there. We're just happy to be coming to Atlanta and sharing the program with some incredible established artists. As an emerging company, it's just really encouraging and motivating for us. To get out of New York, and to come to South, especially for me since I'm from Texas, I've always wanted to come a little further South. It's going to be good for us.

Austin: It's really cool.




Anything you're looking forward to visiting or revisiting in Atlanta outside of performing?

Jonathan: Sadly, each time we visit Atlanta it's been very much we come in, we tech the piece, we perform and usually douring the day there's some sort of teaching event. We actually haven't had a ton of time, the visits have been very brief. We love going to the Goat Farm, maybe a trip there to say hello would be nice. This time I think there's a day where we're only teaching one class, so we may have some time. Hopefully we can see something.

Austin: Any recommendations?


The High Museum is getting ready to show some rare notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat. I think when you arrive, it will have been open about a week, so that will be worth checking out. The High is our big museum, right in midtown. It's not too far from the Rialto where you'll be performing, and it's not too far from the Goat Farm either. 

You mentioned earlier that you went to Jacob's Pillow over the summer [Jacob's Pillow is an annual summer dance festival in the Berkshire mountains, one of the country's most venerable contemporary dance institutions. It was founded in 1931 by dance pioneer and gay man Ted Shawn who wanted to create a place where it was acceptable for men to dance]. That must have been quite a trip, and you must have been thinking a lot about the founder Ted Shawn and his all-male dancers. What were your thoughts on performing at Jacob's Pillow?

Jonathan: It was really an honor. We were in the final week and we were sharing the week with the Martha Graham Company. They were celebrating their 90th anniversary, and Ella Baff was stepping down as artistic director of Jacob's Pillow. The topic of Ted Shawn and his legacy was certainly present... Ella Baff gives a pre-show speech each night. Before our performance she said that Ted Shawn might not ever have imagined MADBOOTS or the work that we do, but that if he were alive, he would certainly be smiling about it. That was very powerful and meaningful to us. We're very proud of that. It was an honor to even have the comparison made, to even have that said was really generous and really sweet. And just being at the Pillow--it sounds kind of cheesy--but it really is kind of a magical place. You feel the history when you're there. To feel connected to that, it just made it ten times better than the fact


I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but what is MADBOOTS. Where does that name come from?

Jonathan: It's a made-up word. It's not a real thing. It came from the book Extemely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The little boy in the book says he's in "heavy boots," referring to feeling sad. We kind of took this idea of boots as being a state of mind and mashed it together with this idea of madness. We wanted something that would stick in people's heads. We thought that sounded weird enough, so we went with it ... MADBOOTS. It's a state of being.


Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz of MADBOOTS perform "Beau" at the Rialto Center for the Arts on Friday, March 4, at 8 p.m. as part of the Off the EDGE Biennial Contemporary Dance Festival.


Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and critic. His work appears regularly in ArtsATL, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications. He loves art, travel, bourbon and old records.