Margaret Dragu, Try Leather, 1975
Justine A. Chambers, Margaret Dragu, William Locke Wheeler and Britta Wirthmüller, Try Leather, Tanzfabrik Berlin (Video © Walter Bickmann), 2021

Introduction

Tryleather.net is an archive of research and creative production by the artists Margaret Dragu, Britta Wirthmüller, Justine A. Chambers, and William Locke Wheeler. The result of five years of collaboration, its starting point was Margaret’s stage-based performance Try Leather, first performed in Toronto in 1975. Try Leather mixed feminist performance art with aerobics, striptease, and German Expressionist dance. Now, nearly fifty years later, a younger generation of artists has revisited the artwork together with Margaret, to trace out elements from the original solo in order to collectively produce an archive of performance research.

Margaret, Britta, Justine, and William all straddle borders between dance, research, and visual art. Each has shared the ‘Origin Story’ of their unique collaboration, located in the section below this introductory text. Margaret and Britta first encountered each other in 2018, when they discovered shared affinities for Expressionist dance. They invited Justine and William to collaboratively produce a body of research over a series of meetings in Berlin and Vancouver, and then, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the four engaged a collaborative process over Zoom. They generated a remarkable body of work that made use of this collaborative network with and through decentralized media. When Margaret and Justine couldn’t travel to Germany because of the pandemic in 2021, Britta and William staged a performance at Tanzfabrik Berlin, which incorporated audio and video projections of their Canadian collaborators. Their semi-improvised performance called upon the research generated by the group, which was utilized as a script or score—organized into a set of sixty-two thematic cards. For example, card 18—“Hot Thing”—unites the group’s shared interest in desirability and sexiness in performance, and card 29—“Tada!”—pokes fun at the triumphalism and virtuosity of much art and dance production.

Tryleather.net is one instantiation of this body of research. Users of this website will find a mix of archival items associated with each card, including reflective audio descriptions, ASL translations, newspaper clippings, and recordings of Zoom calls, among other research materials and creative outputs. Highlights include a series of photographs taken in collaboration with the late artist Colin Campbell (1942–2001), newspaper clippings from Margaret’s careers of artmaking and stripping, and dozens of hours of video recordings of the group dancing and talking together. Further, each of these materials is tagged with several of the hundreds of key terms that extend across each individual card to link media throughout the Website, including terms like #working_conditions, #food, and #striptease. Tryleather.net allows us to reimagine groupings of performance and research whose relationships were co-created between the four artists.

These materials are now open for others to explore in any order: to skim, drift, and surf, and to produce chance encounters and surprise juxtapositions. Tryleather.net allows for multidirectional and aggregationist connections through diverse media forms, reproducing the archive as a creative resource that is process-based and research-driven. Here, the group’s research is represented as networked, processual, and collaborative. Engaging with their archive is a demonstration of the expansive and embodied research produced by this group of artists over the past five years.

–2023

Origin Stories

I have no nostalgia for the past; in fact, I am grateful to forget large parts of my history. But every now and then, it sneaks up on me. Britta gave a performative lecture at Simon Fraser University that was an evocative and mysterious mapping of scores, diaries, archive-ephemera and dancing. While I watched Britta dance, I was mesmerized to see that she had “German Dance Hands.” By this, I mean a certain tone and liveliness of the hands that go beyond a fixed shape. A way of moving the hands that I know only too well and that we both must have absorbed unknowingly from our shared (and now quite ancient) German Expressionist Dance training. Before I met Britta, Justine and William, the terms “archive” and “history-based creative-research” gave me sighs of disdain and ennui-based eyeball rolling. Now, I see and feel those terms as an opportunity to let go of linear timelines and be ready for kaleidoscopic time, experienced through synapses, jolts, waves, orgasms, peristalsis, time-travel, and generally by rupturing the space-time continuum. Britta’s and my dance histories wove in and out of our World War II refugee dance teachers’ fleeing to Montreal nightclubs and the fall of the Berlin Wall. After Britta, Justine, William and my Inaugural Art Dinner at Gorki Park Russian Restaurant in Berlin, our historic details began to herringbone-weave together and time-travel through the holy spaces of the nightclub (and the dressing room). It turned out all four of us were Hot Thangs: in fishnet stockings and dancing with chairs, and we shared even more as artists operating in theatres, galleries, museums and site-specific venues. Making, doing, needing to be seen and quietly being present. During Britta’s year in Vancouver, I shot a video of her re-organizing my bedroom closet, and I posted the video on social media. Later, at an artist dinner party, the other guests asked me, “Who is this young woman cleaning your closet? She looks just like you. Moves like you. Is she your long-lost daughter?” My dinner guests quickly created yet another origin story. I was performing in galleries and clubs in Berlin in the late ’70s when I met a smuggled Ostberliner at one of Fassbinder’s parties. We had a wild but brief love affair, and when I returned to Canada, I discovered I was pregnant. I gave birth to baby Britta in Gander, Newfoundland/Labrador, where a Canadian diplomat picked up Britta and took her to West Berlin, where she was smuggled into East Berlin with spy manoeuvres from John le Carre novels. Britta found a wonderful home with two medical doctors who never told her about her Canadian Origin Story.

The spark of this project was an encounter between Margaret and me in the fall of 2018. I had moved to Vancouver on a DAAD scholarship to develop a one-year research project on the German Jewish dancer and choreographer Ruth Abramowitsch Sorel. I was introduced to Margaret by a common friend in Berlin. What began as a kind invitation from Margaret to lunch at her place evolved into a series of meetings driven by an experience of personal affinities. Despite our age difference and geographic distance, we felt that we had a lot in common. Little by little, we began to understand that it was through the reverberations of German Expressionist Dance that we recognized each other. When Margaret told me she had noticed my “German Dance Hands,” I was puzzled. I was convinced I had erased all traces of my schooling in the lineage of German Expressionist Dance. But it is true. I have a specific way of using my hands. I just hadn’t thought much about it—let alone where it came from. I had to travel all the way to the West Coast of Canada to detect my entanglement in this dance tradition. The discovery of the German Dance Hands is a paragon of the physical reverberations of dance/world history in our individual bodies. And it shows that exploring histories through dance and performance art allows us to unpack some of what is commonly overlooked. Try Leather is an exploration of the common lineage of Canadian and German Dance heritage, and an investigation of to-date unrecorded affinities and less favourable historical narratives like the proximity of modern dance and striptease and others—still to uncover.

TThe story begins at Propaganda. A cafe on Pender St. just east of Main St. on the Downtown east side of so-called Vancouver. Britta and I sit and talk about the circumstances under which we first met. She took a workshop I taught at The Dance Centre. We were working on line dances that emerge with the offerings of multiple bodies—when doing and learning are a simultaneous act. She took the class then introduced herself. I had been curious about who she was. There was an ease about her inside the proposed score. Britta told me about her project excavating archives for Ruth. And in this, she had found bodily connections to Margaret, and in some lesser way, to me. I believe Margaret and Britta had a mutual friend in Berlin who had paved the way for their introduction. I met her in the interstice between dropping my child at preschool and picking him up. A two-and-a-half-hour window—an almost perfect amount of time to dig in with a new friend. We talked shop. Dance shop. Training shop. Teaching shop. Hustle shop. Our shared interest in the embodied archive propelled our conversation (and my excitement). I was speaking to a kindred spirit.
Later, I went to watch Britta perform at 12 Minutes Max. She performed an image of Margaret. Sitting on a chair, ankles crossed with legs extended, bright red wig, a single spotlight spilling over her head. I felt the audience wait for her to do something. They didn’t know she was already doing it. After that, she performed a delicious score where she named what she would do and did it… There was a lag between the doing and speaking, and yet she was always doing both. The performing of the action moved in and out of agreement with her words. It was riveting… A task that is bound to fail, but filled with safeguards that made failing possible and even invited.
Later, but I’m unsure when exactly, Britta invited me to work on Try Leather.

I was in Guanajuato, Mexico, living and healing with Liz Randol, when I got an email from Britta inviting me to be involved in a revisitation of Margaret Dragu’s *Try Leather*. Britta described the project as an investigation of desire, seeing and being seen, tracing common dance legacies Britta shared with Margaret. I was intrigued yet cautious when Britta mentioned that Margaret had been a professional stripper. The title *Try Leather* brought images to mind of a raunchy SM performance with bondage and explicit sex. In Mexico, I was healing from a relationship with a narcissistic boyfriend who had been wielding sex and desire to control and manipulate. I was also getting away from performing, reflecting on my own dramas and narcissisms. So, I was hesitant to enter a performance project, let alone one about desire and sex *et al*. (Is this what Liz was referring to when she pulled the Three of Cups during a tarot reading?) My desire at the time was to get away from all the numbed-out sex and instrumentalization, superficial liberation and half-hearted self-promotion in Berlin—what did Britta mean by “desire” anyway? Then I watched the *Try Leather* video. Margaret’s performance was blunt, deadpan, coldly virtuosic. It resonated with my take on striptease as an often dull, hegemonic affair, the stripper more as “gemstone” (Barthes) than “jewellery.” I thought, I will do this project, but I do not want to be seen. I do not want to perform. Britta said they weren’t interested in doing a stage piece, which I agreed was the best way to go.

Biographies

Margaret Dragu has made art in video, installation, publications and performance for over fifty years. After her training as a dancer, the beginnings of Dragu’s art practice were formed in New York, Montreal and Toronto. At this time, she developed experimental works in nascent artist-run cultures of video art and performance art while also working as a stripper. The results of Dragu’s artmaking is a collaborative, relational, interventionist and community-based practice. Her artworks are sometimes sexy, often comical, and address themes of labour, gender and sexualities. Dragu has also worked in commercial film, television and radio as an actor, producer, writer, and director; choreographed for theatre, film and television; and has curated and written about performance art, dance, culture and politics. Since 1986 Dragu has been a fitness and yoga instructor, and has trained athletes, seniors and dancers. Dragu was honoured in the year 2000 as the first artist in FADO Performance Art Centre’s series Canadian Performance Art Legends. In 2012 she was named Éminence Grise for 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival, and in the same year, she received the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

Britta Wirthmüller is a dancer and choreographer based in Berlin. Her practice is collaborative and research-based, and joins movement with archival research to focus on historically underrepresented dance and dancers. Wirthmüller holds degrees in Dance from the Palucca University of Dance Dresden and Performance Studies from the University of Hamburg. Since 2011 she has been a teacher and researcher at the Inter-University Center for Dance Berlin (HZT). In 2018–19, Wirthmüller received a DAAD scholarship for “Tracing Ruth Sorel,” a year-long artistic research project in Brazil and Canada to follow the biography of the German Jewish choreographer Ruth Abramovitsch Sorel. It was during this research that Wirthmüller first met Margaret Dragu.

Justine A. Chambers is an artist who focuses on the collective and collaborative elements of movement. She dances and choreographs with vocabularies of unspectacular gestures: walking, dinner parties, public spaces, and local histories inform the everyday movements that comprise Chambers’ social choreography. Chambers spent years as a dancer for hire in dance theatres and popular revues, and for the past twenty years has created and produced her own contemporary dance works across Canada and internationally. Chambers was the 2018 recipient of the Scotiabank Dance Centre Lola Award, was selected for the Visiting Dance Artist Program at the National Arts Centre (2019–2020) and was the Artist in Residence at Simon Fraser University’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative (2021), where she currently teaches at the School for the Contemporary Arts.

William Locke Wheeler is an artist, performer and translator. American-born and Berlin-based for the last two decades, he works with textile, paint, installation, spoken word, oboe and theremin, and has performed in drag under the name Bonny Guitar. Wheeler studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has taught at the Inter-University Center for Dance Berlin (HZT). He has translated German texts on art, film, dance and theatre. Wheeler has exhibited internationally, often in collaboration with other artists such as Antonia Baehr, Stefan Pente, Benny Nemer, Eran Schaerf, and Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz.

Acknowledgements

Tryleather.net, 2023
Margaret Dragu
Britta Wirthmüller
Justine A. Chambers
William Locke Wheeler

Organized by Mikhel Proulx
Website designed by Autofirm. Thanks to Julian Garcia and Vincent Charlebois.

Try Leather, 1975, Fifteen Dance Lab, Toronto
Choreographed and performed by Margaret Dragu
Artists: Michael Hayden, Marcella Lustig, artists from Toronto Arts Community
Video: VISUS (Miriam & Lawrence Adams, Terry McGlade)

Try Leather, 2021, Tanzfabrik Berlin
Concept and choreography: Justine A. Chambers, Margaret Dragu, William Locke Wheeler, Britta Wirthmüller
Dance: Justine A. Chambers, Margaret Dragu, William Locke Wheeler, Britta Wirthmüller, Kasia Wolińska
Set design: William Locke Wheeler
Outside Eye: Kasia Wolińska
Sound design and technical direction: Nikola Pieper
Video: Walter Bickmann/Tanzforum Berlin
Production management: Dino Spiri
PR: Denhart van Harling
Graphic design: Carsten Stabenow, Milchhof Atelier
Photos: Anja Weber.
Funded by the Hauptstadtkulturfonds. The project is part of the culture program related to Canada’s Guest of Honour presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2021. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Government of Canada.

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