Dancer Joey Arrigo, with subtle makeup and stubble looking through Zoom, does not identify as non-binary.
Rather, they are gender fluid. “Not neither”, in Arrigo’s own words, “but both”.
And it’s not just a dancer, far from it. Arrigo, who uses the pronoun they, is a drag queen, alumnus of Cirque du Soleil and, for the past few months, the Evil Queen of the Toronto immersive dance show “A Grimm Night”, produced by the TranscenDance Project at the Great Hall of Queen Street West.
Arrigo’s take on The Evil Queen was a collaboration with TranscenDance Artistic Director Julia Cratchley. Together, Arrigo and Cratchley imagined an antagonist rooted in Grimm’s twisted historical fairy tales, but with an androgynous take on the genre.
“Aesthetically, we discussed how this person wanted to come across,” Arrigo said of building his take on the Evil Queen.
“In drag, I put everything away. I asked Julia bluntly, “Would you like this character to have a penis or a vagina?” Julia thought it better to shake the audience, to see gorgeous female energy, but with a penis. And that’s what we’ve done. I did a more androgynous version of my drag makeup. I showed off my muscular legs. But the whole women’s movement came out in moments of seduction and anger.
Cratchley chimed in, offering context from a casting perspective.
“The way I cast the roles has almost nothing to do with their physical appearance,” she said. “It’s what feels good, regardless of gender or anatomy.”
For Arrigo, the Evil Queen is a formative role in that it reflects Arrigo’s actual androgyny. The part’s sinister and sometimes frightening choreography is informed by a flexible approach to the genre and, in part, by Arrigo’s previous dance and acrobatic projects, particularly those with Cirque du Soleil. Arrigo toured Europe with Cirque’s “Kooza” at age 21 and then had the chance to move to Montreal to create a new character, Waz, who became the protagonist of “Volta.”
The journey from “Kooza” to “Volta” was another fluid one, involving crossing the threshold between trickster and hero. “Kooza” saw Arrigo lure a lead character into a world of wonder that was both magical and deceptive – for Waz of “Volta”, on the other hand, Arrigo created the role of the deceived person, a haired “loser”. blue figures in a world obsessed with social media.
Imagining a Cirque du Soleil lead has been a rewarding challenge for Arrigo. Not only did they have to have excellent dance and acrobatic skills, but they had to develop a deep understanding of this new character’s inner psyche while flexing those athletic prowess.
“I had to think about what was in my mind and my heart and channel it into my movement to tell a story,” Arrigo said.
“I went from being a simple dancer to being an actor and an artist. The work became so much deeper for me.
During a tour of “Volta” in the United States, the pandemic hit, sending Arrigo home to Toronto. But despite the initial grief – a desperation felt across the performing arts sector in March 2020 – Cirque du Soleil’s hiatus was fortuitous.
“I came home. I started my journey as a drag queen. And then Julia called me to join ‘A Grimm Night.’
“A Grimm Night” – inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales and immersive experiences such as “Sleep No More” in New York – has had its own difficulties due to the pandemic. The May 2020 and January 2021 productions of the dance play were dropped six weeks and two and a half weeks before opening, respectively. The COVID shutdowns have left dancers and Cratchley frustrated.
Cratchley, in particular, has dreamed of bringing an immersive dance experience to Toronto since 2015. She says there’s no time to waste in making that vision a reality.
“I’ve always wanted to create my own work,” Cratchley said.
“I was traveling and seeing all this immersive work,” Cratchley continued, speaking of performances involving the audience. For “A Grimm Night”, viewers followed the performers from space to space and got to see the action up close.
“It was so clear to me that this kind of thing was missing in our city. I trained in a contemporary ballet conservatory — being in this world of dance concerts is incredible, but it’s not always transferable to the general public. Sometimes there is a disconnect and you miss a deal. You miss the opportunity to bring the general public to see art, to see dance. “Don’t Sleep Anymore” had such diverse audiences – date nights, people hanging out with friends – it was such a different crowd than a contemporary dance performance. We need it in Toronto.
The dream for “A Grimm Night”? Longer performance. After so many rescheduled shows, “A Grimm Night” was only open to the public for one weekend in April.
“The city wants it,” Cratchley said. “We are getting incredible feedback. In a perfect world, these shows would last a month or two.
Everything Cratchley can guarantee for ‘A Grimm Night,’ featuring Evil Queen and a whole corps of talented dancers and acrobats, will be remounted in Toronto in early 2023.
She is ready for the challenge that the ascent will entail.
“It’s a lot of work, any show is a lot of work, but when it’s immersive it becomes tenfold,” Cratchley said.
“I love having to figure it out. I love challenging myself and my creative ways. I love creating the web of an immersive show.
Arrigo agrees. After a career in the big tops of Cirque du Soleil and on dance stages around the world, they have a keen understanding of what the next step should be for dance in Toronto: more experimentation and more fluidity.
“Classical dance and immersive experiences. Gender-bending, experimentation. Not one or the other, but both.