String lights lined the edges of three mattresses on the floor of the Malcolm X House basement this past weekend, where a few early-bird spectators sat awaiting the start of ESQUE. One mattress was covered with a white fitted sheet that read “Carry That Weight”—a reference to the performance art project initiated by Emma Sulkowicz, the former Columbia University student who made headlines for speaking out about her experience as a victim of sexual assault. Draping, diaphanous fabrics softened the plain white of the ceilings and walls, bringing a cozy ambience to the dimly lit space. Smooth coffeehouse jazz played softly through the speakers as the space hummed with the light chatter of audience members. Finally, José Luis Sánchez ’18 and Jasmine Mack ’16 stepped on to the stage and the voices in the house slid down a gradient of volume.
“Welcome to ESQUE,” Sánchez said. And thus the show began.
ESQUE is an annual arts showcase exhibiting the works of queer students, students of color, and more broadly, any individual who has felt marginalized as an artist in other campus spaces. Conceived last year by Sánchez and Trouve Ivo ’16, ESQUE is now in its second year, and has built upon its original mission to provide a platform for students to share their stories regardless of gender, artistic training, or sexual orientation. This year’s show was organized by director Remy Hatfield-Gardner ’17, Sous-Producer Ryden Nelson ’16, and stage manager Sarah Lurie ’17.
This year’s showcase was in the form of three evening performances in X House, and comprised both a visual and performing arts component, giving audience members the option of viewing a gallery of photographs, paintings, and zines prior to viewing the live performances.
Curated by Shirley Fang ’18, these gallery works centered on themes of body image, identity, and sexuality. A number of the artists featured in the show reflected on the concept of sex positivity and the state of hookup culture on campus. One student produced two zines, titled “The Bad Hook-Up Book” and “Fuck Sex Positivity Honestly!” The former recounted a coercive sexual encounter that the author experienced in college, then clarified the concept of true consent. The latter questioned the value of the sex-positive college campus and posited the idea that overwhelming sex positivity has the potential isolate those who don’t engage in hookup culture.
After audience members had the chance to walk through the gallery, they were led into the X House basement. Before each of the ten performance pieces, all of which displayed impressive production and set design, Sánchez and Mack came onstage to introduce the upcoming work. They were challenged with the task of bridging the ten performance pieces, which varied widely in genre and scope. They aimed to provide context for each piece without overly influencing the audience’s takeaway.
“I wanted spectators to make connections on their own and to wonder and question how they feel while watching each piece,” Sánchez said. “I wanted them to wonder, ‘What does that have to do with what Jasmine or I just said?’”
Sánchez and Mack prefaced each piece with anecdotes or general observations about each work’s subject matter, akin to the way Jerry Seinfeld famously begins his jokes.
“Do you ever get sad seeing all the trash that’s left on Foss?” Sánchez asked the audience, prior to showing “Palomas Afligidas,” a short film he produced about the human connection to earth.
Each performance piece was intensely personal, engaging with individual experiences through varying styles of performance. Two students presented overlapping monologues about identifying as polyamorists, posing the question of why polyamory is often associated with casual sex. Polyamorists are not required to have more casual sex than those who open up their relationships sexually rather than emotionally. Reframing polyamorous relationships in a manner that veered away from the normatively-critical lens, the performers shared anecdotes from their own lives to reveal the marginalization that people who identify as poly experience, even on a campus that prides itself on sexual acceptance.
Other performance pieces were more difficult to decode, and lived up to the mission statement that Sánchez mentioned: takeaways from each ESQUE piece are to be individual and nuanced. “Letting Go,” another performance piece, began with an ESQUE ensemble member alone on the stage, soon joined by the performer of this piece, who held a long braided rope in his hands. As tender, breathy, whispering music played in the background, the performer began to tie the rope around the ensemble member’s body, restraining her arms behind her back, creating a corset-like mechanism that prevented her from moving. After all of the rope was wound around her body, the unwinding process began, allowing the ensemble member to freely move once again. Upon the piece’s conclusion, the stage was left empty, aside from the rope lying lifelessly on the floor.
Each year, ESQUE picks a theme around which to base the show. This year’s theme was food, and how people are often treated as commodities like food as a result of racialized and gendered thinking. Artists interpreted this theme broadly, as many chose to confront phenomena that manifest in society as the result of food, whether indirectly or directly. These sub-themes often centered on body image, personal nourishment, and self love.
One performance that corresponded directly with this year’s theme was titled “Consumption” and featured projections of coffee, chocolate, and caramel in a piece that explored the association of certain races and skin colors to food. Conceptualized by Brenda Quintana ’18, this work featured three performers who stood in front of the screen in large plastic tubs while having one of the three foods poured over their heads. They shivered in discomfort as the cold liquids dripped down their faces and stuck to their skin.
Though this year marked only ESQUE’s second performance, its mission since its founding has remained the same.
“The show was initially called Queer Burlesque. The name was changed to ESQUE to mean the taking out of ‘burl’ from ‘esque,’—‘ESQUE’ meaning expression,” Sánchez said.
At its core, ESQUE aims to create a space on campus where individuals feel safe expressing themselves, wholly and honestly. The show’s participants, along with a number of social justice and educational initiatives that ESQUE organizes throughout the year, truly define each show.
“Ultimately, the show is what it becomes,” Sánchez said. “The people in it create what it’s supposed to be.”