Private Flowers, a dancefilm installation at Fort York National Historic Site in Toronto presented with Toronto History Museums, was directed and devised by Haui and co-created and choreographed with Rodney Diverlus and Jera Wolfe. It runs until April 28, 2024.
Rodney Diverlus believes in the power of dance, something he had in mind when he decided to be part of telling the story of infantryman Private Flowers, who was hanged in 1832 for engaging in sexual activity with another man. He tells this story with Jera Wolfe in the short dancefilm Private Flowers, directed by Haui, which played as part of an installation at Fort York until Sept. 3.
As he says, “I’m a pacifist. I’m an anti-colonialist. The first thought I had was, ‘Do we really need another commemoration of a quote-unquote fallen soldier?’ ” It was through speaking with creator Haui about their intention to take the project beyond the literal history that Diverlus says he lost his initial skepticism; it was to be an examination of Queerness and humanity, of life in an extremely crowded yet isolated space in a time when homosexuality was widely considered abnormal.
When speaking with dancers Diverlus and Wolfe, it’s clear that living at Fort York and serving in the military service in the early 1800s sounds like a special kind of hell, filled with men in close quarters and limited communication with the outside world; it sounds like they are describing a prison rather than a workplace.
“We’re guessing at a lot of things that happened in private,” Wolfe explains. “I think it’s easy to imagine these scenarios.… Thinking about men with families, then being alone and taken away and isolated together, building [a] brotherhood that could potentially turn into love at times, or turn into frustration that can be sexual or not. There’s many, many different ways to think about it.” Though gay men have existed as long as humans have existed, the notion and records of homosexuality as we think of it today did not exist at that time; the accounts of the event leading to Flowers’ hanging are ambiguous at best.
For Diverlus, embodying what it was to be deviant from expected norms with Haui and Wolfe is what drew him to this project: “It was really about the excitement of the three of us coming together to imagine this concept of Private Flowers without actually fixating on the man.”
Private Flowers was part of the colonial machine. Whether he had agency or not, his history is a springboard for conversations around colonialism, capitalism, authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism, all things actively threatening Queer safety today.
As for the specific content in the film, Diverlus says, “Seeing two bodies like mine and Jera’s, almost flesh-like, engaging with each other, tussling with each other, loving each other, I think that that imagery is something you don’t see a lot. There’s a cross-cultural conversation around care that is laying in the work.”
“Ultimately, I think there is a broader conversation to be had about these systems that don’t even benefit the people out there that you would think it would benefit,” says Diverlus of his interest in telling a colonial story. “These systems actually harm us all, both the folks from marginalized communities but also those who uphold them. There’s something really interesting to me about how capitalism is not even serving those who are hardcore capitalists. The Trump era reignition in 2016 was very much about white Americans realizing that capitalism ain’t working for them.”
He shares, “The artistic investigations that I was really interested in were not about recreating a piece of history. It was really about, what can this story tell us about our current state of being right now? And what can this story offer us? The story that we don’t hear about, this continued story of violence amongst Queer people that we know exists since time immemorial.”
It was having time and space to have these conversations around these imagined scenarios with Haui and Wolfe that was integral for Diverlus. The story of Private Flowers is not an uncomplicated one, but so many elements of it are as relevant today as they were in 1832.
“Even us as collaborators were able to come in with different artistic curiosity and interests and could still figure out a way to do it through movement,” Diverlus says thoughtfully, “I think movement has healing possibilities.”
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