Talking about performance can be hard. Talking about death is harder.
There is a blockage — a frustrating jungle gym of emotion, formality and memory that exists between what wants to be said and the feeble words that end up being squeezed out of the ether.
In my experiences with death, people often pass quietly. Hospital wards are places of sterile calm, and illness is discussed with furrowed brows and hushed voices. All actions incumbent to the grief ritual, from warbling “Amazing Grace” at the funeral to eating pickles and buns with cousins, are performed with a tone of stoic mourning. No one mentions the mortician’s bad choice of lipstick.
On Sunday, October 23, I attended Taking it to the Grave, a performance work that aimed to break the pattern of repressing grief, dress death up in all its glory and laugh in the face of it.
Promoted as a living funeral, Taking it to the Grave was artist, performer and stage manager Andrew Henderson aka Glamdrew’s parting party, a defiant reclaiming of death and a lesson in letting go.
Diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma three years ago, Henderson eschewed the norm, refusing to submit to sombre sickness culture and choosing instead to leave the earthly realm exactly as he intended — fabulously. Embracing femme adornment, Henderson, together with his close friend Toronto-based dancer and choreographer Eroca Nichols, wished to present a performance experience that would make people think differently about death and dying.
Originally from the rural community of Clandeboye, MB, Henderson spent much of his time growing up in Winnipeg — where he could participate in theatre programs unavailable in his small town — and migrated to Toronto after high school. When the cancer changed to incurable a year ago, Henderson returned home to the Prairies, bringing Nichols and Taking it to the Grave with him.
Presented at aceart inc., a contemporary art gallery in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, Taking it to the Grave began with a warning from Nichols that “Things can get quite intense.”
Nichols, along with fellow artists Carly Boyce and Mars Gradiva, acted as masters of ceremony and emotional guides. Clad in various seraphic white and silver getups, Nichols, Boyce and Gradiva were there to lend a shoulder to cry on, if any participants felt the need.
The group of about fifty were free to move around the warmly lit space. Some gravitated to pillows that littered the hardwood floor; some sat in chairs or leaned on walls, while others went straight for the nail art station where Boyce was based. The favoured style of the day was to paint only the bird-flipper, the middle-finger manicure. Henderson’s family was introduced, smiling together.
Henderson lounged in a chaise with a gauzy, mosquito-net halo — “the champagne bottle” — as Britney Spears’s Toxic played in the background. The sound was muted and garbled, as though we were hearing it underwater. In front of Henderson laid a shrine, a line of elaborate candles, family photos, tiny trinket boxes and a printout of Kim Kardashian was assembled on the ground — all as a nod to Catholic iconography. Downstage from this was a pile of gold glitter, waiting inside a taped square on the floor.
One by one, Taking it to the Grave participants were invited to approach Henderson to confess secrets or regrets, any baggage that they felt needed to be released. Henderson, looking every bit a queer bboy angel in coordinated white and baby blue pants and sneakers, listened intently, tenderly grasping their arm with an impeccably groomed claw. Together, Henderson and each participant sketched out a design meant to represent their burden. The large sketchbook pressed into Henderson’s bare belly, where a Venus de Milo tattooed on his chest is partially covered by a large lacey Victorian collar. His face was made up in gold glitter with blue eyeshadow and contour. He sat back still most of the time, his legs crossed elegantly at the ankles. His feet were void of energy and they hung at an odd angle off the plush lounge chair. He resembled a bedridden child with a restless imagination.
Once Henderson and the participant had completed the simple design, Boyce would traipse over, needles and India ink in hand, emanating the sound of a tambourine because of the silver discs fastened onto the soles of her sneakers. She applied a stick and poke tattoo, eventually covering Henderson’s right forearm in dotted designs. In receiving tattoos of the participants’ confessions, Henderson acted as priest, taking on what haunts the confessor.
Anyone who wasn’t currently confessing milled around the space, talking with each other or taking photos against gold curtains behind where Henderson was positioned. When an especially catchy song came on (usually Rihanna or Robyn), Nichols rallied up a dance party within the taped off square. Participants wishing to join twisted and smiled, tossed glitter into the air and picked sparkly threads out of each other’s hair. Some seemed to dance as a means of release, wiping teary eyes while moving their hips. It was refreshing to see the joy inherent in the grieving process; the celebration of a life is equally as important as mourning the loss.
At times Henderson was left on his lonesome, the confessor having scurried off to blow their nose, and Boyce not yet available to ink the next tattoo, still busy finishing a manicure. Henderson seemed an object at his own party, watching the crowd, living out the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn experience of sitting in on your own funeral. At certain moments, he chose to pull a sleep mask over his brow, alluding to an open-casket viewing.
A broad emotional range was apparent amongst the participants, creating a slightly strained energy. Some individuals cried softly, holding hands and pulling crumpled tissues out of pockets. Those openly grieving operated in stark contrast to others who were chatting with their neighbour, glancing fleetingly around the room, unaffected personally but no less aware of the grim circumstances.
There wasn’t enough time for all the participants to confess to Henderson, and after approximately two and a half hours the ceremony came to a close with Henderson being anointed with champagne.
Walking home, I was left feeling odd and empty. I had been a stranger at a funeral, left to observe the varying expressions of grief experienced by family and friends. By insisting on going out with a gold and glittery bang, Henderson invited his participants to confront death, the sick body and grief in open and sometimes uncomfortable ways. It is okay to die, and it is okay to choose how you say goodbye.
In a society bent on public oversharing, Henderson shouldered our therapeutic desire in a fashion that was bold, bearing the weight of our confessions, regrets and secrets, selflessly taking on the weight of our sadness.
Two days after the ceremony, Henderson died. He’ll be remembered forever as the glamorous and bold being he always was.