Darling Shear is a mover and shaker—literally. The Chicago-born choreographer produces movement-oriented pieces that are closely tied to healing from trauma. Trained in ballet, modern, jazz, and African dance, Shear ties in styles of burlesque and contemporary movement that includes intense emotion, bare feet, and crossing the barrier between audience and dancer. In the piece Querida, first performed at Links Hall in November 2018, the artist opens up about personal experiences and how movement can regenerate, soften, and disrupt our ways of navigating the past. On December 17, Shear will present excerpts from the piece—which has changed immensely since first performed—at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the “In Progress” series.
Things are snowballing for Shear as more residencies and fellowships fill up the artist’s calendar. Tech, no-Jesus debuts in 2020; Beatitude, which is a piece about Beatnikism, premieres in June at Links Hall; and another installment of Querida is on the docket. I sat down with Shear to talk about the evolution of Querida, processing identity, and the club as a collaborative practice space.
Did you study dance?
I did study dance. I didn’t start studying dance until high school. I was 14. I didn’t realize I needed it and I didn’t realize it was calling me. I still don’t realize it’s calling me sometimes. It’s very fulfilling. It’s like flying.
Do you consider yourself a dancer/choreographer, or is “performer” a better word?
I’m shifting my vocabulary around, and I’m starting to say “conversationalist.” I don’t really say “dancer” that often, I mostly say “mover” because I try to be accessible. I try and be mindful of my labels that I associate myself with. I am a dancer, but I’m a mover. That way I can access people much more easily.
Yeah, sometimes the word “dancer” can be a bit heavy. I always like to ask artists what they like to be called. I have a fear of incorrectly labeling someone.
If it does happen, you aren’t going for the throat. You have to allow more leniency. I’m mindful of the words I use because I’m trying to access people. I don’t really like saying “performer,” especially being all of the things that are exoticized, or can be exoticized, that come along with the word “performer.” There is a performance. I do perform. I’m trying to find ways to shift and soften so I can navigate the space without doubting myself.
How has the dance and performance community here in Chicago shaped you?
That’s always a weighed down question. The community is lovely. I think the thing is that because of funds it puts people into cliques a little bit. These tiers of dancers only hang out together . . . There is also a lovely close contaminating happening here and there.
I feel like the dance communities are very separated. I don’t know the more classical ballet dance community here, but I do know this other community. I was wondering about that crossover.
There is some crossover. There is this group called the See Chicago Dance which is a good place to go and meet new people. They are also good at bridging the whole city and not just be centered downtown to Andersonville to Avondale. They want more south-side dancers. Again, there are so many disconnects. Chicago is also a conversational city. It is the businessman city. We have such a beautiful, rich, robust culture and so many fabulous people are constantly blooming from here.
Would you say that your practice is collaborative?
Yes, it is. It’s collaborative in that way, and it’s collaborative in ways you’re not thinking of. Right now I’m working with a new DJ duo, Grizzly and Black. We did our first gig together in June at the Darling over on Randolph. These after hours that they host, the sound and the movement become a composition. That’s our breeding ground for how we relay the inspiration. I have works that they were not a part of, and I’m starting to incorporate them into being a part of these works because of how we work together so well. Trust is key, and I trust them. I’m not saying I don’t trust a lot of people. Mister Wallace, who I’ve done collaborations with, we are still working together. I’ve worked with so many people who are a part of Futurehood, Elijah McKinnon, OTV, and Jamila Woods. I’m really appreciative. There have been some really wonderful collaborations.
Do you think of the club and nightlife as your practice space?
Yes. People know, “Oh Darling’s here? She needs space.” It’s arms, and legs, and hair flying.
I’m a very quiet person. I’m quiet until I’m not. Looney Tunes is a good way to describe it. A cross between Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, some SpongeBob, a few dashes of Bubbles—I have to be specific—and Rose from Golden Girls. Mmhm, and a few dashes of Sinclair from Living Single. I’m quiet, and then I’m on.
A lot of your work references trauma and healing. Can you talk about that and how you feel your practice conveys this?
I talk about how in my youth I was molested. I think I was probably four or five. It needs to be out there. My work is out here, and we need to talk about these things. That happened and that informed my life. I held on to that for a long, long, long time. It was also very interesting because it was a female-identifying individual at the time. It was interesting how that individual has possibly shaped the person I’ve become in so many ways.
[Querida] is about healing through sexual trauma and emotional traumas and the vices we used to fill them in. People who look like me are sexualized from a very, very, very early age. How can we have a conversation with these traumas? We live in societies that have been built upon puritan views so then we can’t have conversations about sex and gender and sexuality. This is how I deal with it.
There is a lot of soft misdirection in the show. The show is very intimate, very sensual, very deep, and sexy. But also, we understand these goals of hyperfeminity and then being queer, the capitalistic gaze, and the patriarchal gaze. The show has shifted. The show premiered November 2018 at Links Hall. It was a three-day show at the top of November. Very, very lovely. I have two collaborators, Leah Ball, she has some sculptures that I use in the piece and then Chelsea Ross, she created a film that went into HUMP! Fest, so I use that film to desensitize people before. I’m not using it at this show because it is only excerpts and I don’t want to give everything away! We use that [film] to soften the audience—here’s what you think you’re getting but then I come in and flip it around. You think you’re coming for tits and ass, but you’re actually coming to learn something.
Have you ever taught any workshops with this practice?
No, I usually only do it through my performance. I get nervous. For someone who is trying to facilitate space for people, it’s a lot. Within this show too, because it does tap into some of the taboos. I do let people know this is not a safe space because I don’t create your safety. It’s a comfortable space for you to come in so that you can take care of yourself. I can’t do that. I don’t want that job.
I know a lot of people are rethinking the term “safe space” because you can’t promise that. The term came around with good intentions, but now it’s just thrown out there without thinking about it.
There’s a book that just came out that’s called Do You Remember House? by Micah Salkind, and it’s about Chicago’s queer underground and the culture. A big part of that is that it’s church. It’s a safe space to release and explore and become new. That’s club culture for queer culture. It’s a simple space, but it is a safe space. I love my nightlife and working the nightlife. I have the freedom. But I do need space. How can I still incorporate that? I grew up in the club. I’ve been in the club since I was three. Scootchin’ the good scootch.
There’s an after party that’s happening after the performance. Lots of good things have been happening this year. I’ve been pinching myself a lot, crying a lot. We have a few residencies and fellowships that are coming up. The Portuguese meaning of querida is “the wanted one.”
Will Querida look differently than how it was performed the first time?
Girl, it looks completely different.
So “In Progress” is the title of the MCA series. It’s ongoing.
Yeah, yeah. It’s for artists around the city who are developing and want feedback for their work from the community. It’s also to get new eyes. It’s a black box, for me, because this piece is done, and it’s still evolving. But they said it’s fine. I still want to be informed with how I move.
Yeah, there’s room for improvement always.
We’re doing it in the theater and I am trying to pack the house. I am climbing on people during the show. It’s very visceral. We do let people know that things are going to be happening tonight, and if you don’t feel comfortable please get up and walk away and take care of yourself. Because I have a show that I’m doing. If I brought up something then you go and process that. If you want to talk about it afterwards, then find me. v