Exploring the Work of Choreographer Ed Mock on the 30th Anniversary of His Death

For the past year, I have been working on a documentary on the life of the late black, queer, experimental choreographer Ed Mock. 2016 marked the 30-year anniversary of his death from AIDS, and we've seen a resurgence in the San Francisco underground dance scene, examining his legacy as a dancer, eccentric, guru and provocateur. And through oral histories and archived documents, what I have learned about Ed Mock is fascinating.

I have often sat looking at pictures of the man, going over and over in my head what all his fears, frustrations and anxieties were. There were many. His position as a gay black man in the classically white world of modern dance proved hard -- sometimes calling into question his legibility.

Coming to Know Mock's Work

I came to know Ed Mock's work indirectly through Daryl Smith (owner of the Luggage Store -- San Francisco's oldest independently run art gallery on Market and 6th streets). I had been planning my dance company's first show and scouting the Luggage Store for an opening. I was showing Daryl clips of my company's 8mm black-and-white film Free Jazz, which he then handed over to his sister, S.F.-born spiritualist and choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith of Deep Waters Dance Theater. Amara saw a clip of me dancing and was reminded of her old mentor and dance father, the late Ed Mock. I had a meeting with Amara, and she told me tales of an ancestor I had not known existed.

In 2013, Tabor-Smith (alongside Wayne Hazzard, head of the Dancers' Group and former Ed Mock and Company member) staged a five-hour, site-specific, moving dance performance entitled "He Moved Swiftly But Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street." The piece was in honor of Ed Mock and a remembrance of the spirit of old San Francisco. I was a participant, along with 20-plus other Bay Area-based performance artists, dancers and musicians. It was an eclectic mix of people with varying degrees of proximity to the legend of Mock, including old company members and new devotees alike.

Taken by the Subject

In doing this performance, I was taken by the subject and at first wanted to write a book about Mock. Then I was talking to a queer filmmaker buddy of mine, Travis Mathews (I Want Your Love, Interior. Leather Bar.), who said to me, "No one reads books; just make a film." I trusted him, and with that much, I started work on Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock -- a timeline of Mock's work in San Francisco from the late '60s until his death in the mid-'80s.

From the start, I was a bit overwhelmed with the task ahead. Like most of the generation of artists lost to AIDS, there was not some nice, neat timeline of his work anywhere, and tracing and tracking videos for licensing damn near gave me a nervous breakdown. I was also (on the flip side) very surprised to see just how much of his legacy was still around. The Museum of Performance and Design boasted many of his archived articles and videos. I was even more taken back by the oral histories of those who knew Ed Mock.

In doing this project, I have learned that getting a group of artists together can be like herding cats -- though once nailed down, the oral histories flowed out beautifully.

Paying the Price for Postmodernist Practice

Not much is known about his life before he came to S.F., but some facts hold up. He studied dance at the Katherine Dunham School, as well as the Lester Horton School in Chicago, and traveled as a performer on the "Chitlin Circuit" before his arrival out West. He taught classes at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and was in a late '60s documentary about the theater entitled A.C.T. Now. He was arrested at the Venice Biennale in Italy in 1981 for doing a performance in which he left the theater, barefoot and wearing a dress, and wandered the streets. The cops saw Ed (who spoke no Italian) and arrested him on sight.

He danced for a Pointer Sisters' performance, mostly improvising his movements. The alumni of his workshops include Kit Crawford (co-owner of the Clif Bar organic snack company) and Ntozake Shange (who staged some of the original "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf" performances at one of Ed's studios); Sapphire (author of Push, the novel that inspired the film Precious) took Ed's classes in the '70s and was a devotee. Ed also once did a performance with Robin Williams during which he improvised a dance for Bobby McFerrin.

Mock was not just a jazz dancer, as the world wanted to neatly file him. His work pushed elements of performance, pedestrian movement, acting and technique, all meeting in the singularity that was Mock himself -- a prolific postmodernist well before that identity was accessible. He paid a price for this, of course, which many in his circle believe to be the reason much of his practice (compared with his contemporaries) went underfunded.

In an effort to map out our future (as queers, art makers, radicals and allies alike), we are still deep in the process of excavating the memories of our fallen spiritual family in every sense of the word. We are often surprised to find the bits and pieces of their lives that peek through buried histories and see something glowing with hope -- maybe even something in ourselves -- that finally feels like a reason for continuing.

It is perhaps humbling to know that one is not the first or the last, but in a tradition of some sort. That one is not here to invent the wheel but to take on the equally taxing challenge of keeping it moving forward -- and sometimes torturing oneself with the question, "What would the world look like if they had lived?"

Brontez Purnell is the author of the cult zine Fag School and the book Cruising Diaries, the front man for his band the Younger Lovers and founder of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company (BPDC). His film, Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock_, premiers in February 2017 in San Francisco._