The Street and the Dance Floor
“Kiki” is a documentary about New York vogueing that revisits the ballroom scene made famous by Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning,” which won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 1991. Directed by Sara Jordeno, “Kiki” brings together interviews with on-the-street and dance-floor scenes to create an exhilarating, multifaceted portrait of ballroom participants, a number of whom are L.G.B.T. activists. “Kiki” an ode to gay New York. This is Sara Jordenö’s film that she co-wrote with ballroom dancer and LGBTQ activist Twiggy Pucci Garcon about the next generation of Harlem ballroom dance.
Here is a film with attitude and lots of energy. We see bright and competitive dance contests that are contrasted with the sometimes painful and challenging personal environments that the film’s subjects are forced to deal with. This is a very special addition to the ongoing stories of marginalized queer and trans life in New York City.
Today, federal government funding backs the balls and houses of New York’s LGBTQ community. They serve as crucial networks for outreach and support of queer youth dealing with such major problems as HIV, teen suicide, inadequate health care, police brutality, and underemployment.
Gia Marie Love, a trans woman who faces persistent discrimination and ongoing rejection tells us that her community is well aware of death. The film builds on the legacy of films and TV shows that showcase black and Latino LGBT characters and it reflects a sense of empowerment in the community. ”Kiki”, the title, is a nickname for the current ball scene. We see Garcon and best friend Chi Chi Mizrahi stage a dance on the site of the former Rockland Palace, a Harlem landmark that was once the venue for drag balls in the 1920s and early ’30s. The film rests on shaky ground simply because it will always be compared to “Paris Is Burning”. Livingstone’s film is a classic of the then new queer cinema and it became something of a cultural phenomenon. Of course there is also the possibility that the older film could cause many to want to see the newer.
“Kiki” is about the communal strength that comes from embracing difference. Like Livingston, Jordenö is very interested in character. This community is made up of LGBTQ people of color in a city with a notoriously brutal police force, has a lot of problems. In the context of AIDS and HIV, the frequent rejection of society and family, hate crimes and everything else, the business of living is a full time job. The drag balls emphasize this holistic, artistic identity. We hear from someone that walking the is “telling a story.” It’s all about presenting oneself and saying “I am beautiful.” It is, in a sense, an art of living self-portraiture. The film is an assembly of portraits. This is most obvious in the case of Gia Marie Love, the woman at the thematic center of the film. She is a transgender woman, but Jordenö doesn’t build her into a linear narrative of transition. Instead, she first introduces Gia as an activist and artist and then later uses a series of moving portraits that chart her shifting public image. These shots that have become a staple of nonfiction cinema are a conscious and thematically motivated gesture in this film and it is full of similar portrait shots, the subject looking directly into the camera. Many aren’t even principle subjects. Their images further this interpretation of the Kiki world as a place of self-assurance. It is a community built upon the idea of individuality.
This is defiance of the prejudices of society and we see that self-portraiture and pride can lead to being kicked out of a home or refused a job, but here it becomes an act of both empowerment and defiance. It also involves quite a bit of political activism. Jordenö includes a meeting of the Kiki Coalition, an organization of groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Hetrick-Martin Institute and others that promote HIV/AIDS testing and education, transgender rights, ending LGBTQ homelessness, and other community issues. The Kiki scene still hangs out at the Chelsea Piers, but now the vogueing is mixed with talk of organizing for the reelection of President Obama. Related to his work fighting LGBTQ homelessness, Twiggy gets an invitation to the White House for a reception honoring LGBTQ activism. That is all new and would not have been possible before. The language has also changed. The discourses around sex work and transgender identity stand out in particular. Jordenö features a number of organized discussions, not just of political issues but also of personal ones. At one point Gia leads a conversation about the relationship between sex work and transgender identity, stressing that no one should judge someone else’s transition, no matter what path they’ve taken. Naturally this kind of political discourse does take some of the artistic fire out of “Kiki”. There are occasional moments of theatrical fantasy, but they don’t have quite the same thrill as in other recent documentaries.