The Four Queens
GETTING A TAROT READING FROM DANCER ZOE DONNELLYCOLT.
I have been consistently coming to Zoe’s apartment for four years now; the first time I walked in, I was so overcome with envy of its shabby Craftsman charm (I was still fairly new to Oakland), its built-in bookcases, its gold-painted mouldings, that I turned right around, walked down the stairs back to her front door, and burst into tears. (We’ve laughed about this many times since.)
In those intervening years, her home (under the moniker “Periwinkle Palace,” a name which well befits its magical qualities) has come to be the location of a regular monthly performance series called, simply, Performance Primers. Joining the rich tradition of Oakland DIY house shows, the Performance Primers are intended as an opportunity to test fresh work. Zoe is a dancer, so many of the performances are by dancers, but there have also been performance artists, visual artists, writers; representatives of the richly variant Oakland arts communities, coming together to connect, to share space.
We are sitting on her bed beneath clear, hanging gems, which refract rainbows on the walls. It feels like the perfect environment in which to discuss her latest dance show, Queener, which she recently performed at SAFEhouse Arts in San Francisco.
Queener was an attempt to examine queerness, specifically femme identity, through the structure of the four queens of tarot: the Queen of Cups, ruler of the heart; the Queen of Wands, ruler of creative force; the Queen of Swords, ruler of the mind; and the Queen of Coins, ruler of the body and material world.
“For me,” Zoe says, “a lot of my femininity is learning how to grieve.”
This idea of grief draws a thread across time back to Whirl We Blue, a show she performed at SAFEhouse Arts last spring. “The color blue—anyone can take that color and use it as a healing, grieving agent.” In a sense, Queener and Whirl We Blue were both attempts to reckon with grief, though through different lenses—first, blueness, now tarot.
Describing the four queens, she says, “What is our brainy femininity? What’s our body femininity? What’s our spirit femininity? What’s our emotional femininity look like?” She goes on to admit that this structure was also just a useful tool to decide on how many dancers to have in the show. Mysticism aside, tarot cards are a means of structuring certain overarching themes in our lives—and, apparently, choreography. “My art practice,” she says, “is super spiritual for me in a lot of ways.”
Given the subject of Queener, I have asked her to give me a tarot reading (as she has many times before) while I talk to her about the show.
I worked the door at Queener in exchange for free admission, and as such, I got to peak behind the scenes, which is to say, I got to see the pre-show anxiety come to a head. Zoe was on edge; she carried it in her body. I decided the best way to help was to perform my designated task to the best of my ability. I put on my customer service smile as I informed each person who entered that tickets were priced on a sliding-scale of $10-20, feeling uncomfortable each time someone handed me a twenty and I had to ask, “Do you need change?”
But before Queener began, there was a shorter solo performance by Zoe: The Wheel of Fortune. Named after another tarot card, the “fortune” in the Wheel of Fortune usually connotes chance or destiny, but it quickly became clear that in this instance, the name played with the other definition: money.
Zoe entered the dazzling triangle, situating herself in the center, surrounded by ephemera, clothing, strewn about, scattered and glimmering. Apparently improvising, she began to implore the audience—to pay up. The dancers need money. She needs money. She told us it makes her very anxious, this asking, and it was clear that it was true. Anxiety shook the words from her mouth, her tongue tripped them out, trembling. She began to don costume pieces, a skirt, a blazer, heels, which all came together like a caricature of a businesswoman. She stood on a chair, all the while speaking candidly about these two taboo topics: money (or rather the lack thereof) and anxiety. When it ended, I felt myself let loose a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.
Now, sitting on her bed, I almost don’t remember Queener itself, preoccupied as I had been with the rawness of The Wheel of Fortune. I remember Zoe and the other three dancers in exaggerated high femme costumes; glitter abounded. But when I think of it now, the performance swims—dazzling, ethereal, fleeting, resistant—dissolving as my mind’s eye tries to focus the details. I would like to say this reflects the elusive nature of femme identity, but the truth is that I am not a dancer, and movement vocabulary escapes me.
Before she reads my cards, she takes a moment to document the last reading she gave herself. Tarot is a daily part of her life, something she has pushed to an impressive level of systematic precision; every time she draws a card, she not only writes about it, she records it in a graph in the back of her notebook, making note of certain cards which repeatedly appear, a quickly legible visual representation of the themes that she would like to pay special attention to.
In her most recent draw, she pulled Four of Cups, which Kim Krans, creator of the Wild Unknown Tarot deck, associates with greed. “Some people interpret my life as greedy. Especially talking about money in art, people are like, ‘Why do you want more money? You make amazing things!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I make amazing things, so pay me money!’” Like many artists, especially in the Bay Area, Zoe is caught up in the constant hustle. “I have like six jobs, and I’m interviewing for a seventh one.”
While we’re on the subject, I ask her about The Wheel of Fortune.
She explains the thought process behind the piece, saying, “This is fucking bullshit! Where are all the people with all the money who can fucking pay us? Because I know they’re out there, and I’m like, ‘Where the fuck are they?’” And then I’m like, ‘Oh, I need to ask people for money,’ and I hate doing that, and it makes me feel all these things. So then I just danced it out.”
She admits it made her feel very vulnerable. But for her, making art is work, and in that work she feels a strong sense of personal responsibility. “It starts with me,” she says. “And if I’m not doing my work, if I’m not coming out, if I’m not acknowledging my fucking broken brain that lends itself to being an artist, I’m just perpetuating the system.” She’s emphatic, animated, and sincere.
“If my art is void of my politic, it sucks. So I’m not gonna make shitty art.”—Tara Marsden