To the bone

Pub date February 11, 2011

DANCE/MUSIC There are a lot of interesting things in Brontez Purnell’s room. Giant self-made posters of Josephine Baker (“The most famous black party kid ever,” he says), Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, and the legendary Harlem Renaissance publication Fire!!. An arrangement of Polaroid Instamatic nude shots of old flames and interview subjects from his zine, Fag School. A few more Instamatic shots – of him and his mom and grandmother. A framed letter from Kathleen Hanna. An autographed copy of the Go-Go’s’ Talk Show. A typewriter. Effects pedals. On a window ledge, a CD by his uncle, the late blues guitarist J.J. Malone. On his bed, a well-worn paperback of Lady Sings the Blues, next to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pillow. But the most interesting presence in the room is Brontez himself.

“I grew up with a strong Southern Baptist influence,” Brontez says, when I ask about the role of ritual in his dance projects. “These days I’m not as likely to disregard what that did to me and how it set my way of thinking about the world into motion. I talk to my mom, who is a devout Christian and also totally wild-ass, every day. But for the first 15 years of my life, I was at a place where, every Sunday, the most conservative people could scream their heads off. It wasn’t pretentious, it was to the bone. It’s part of the reason I’ve never had trouble dancing at [rock] shows or getting into the energy of the moment.”

Long before Brontez burned up the stage as a key member of Gravy Train!!!!, he was the talk of the Bay Area rock scene because of his uninhibited energy. “Sometimes, in Gravy Train!!!!, or especially when I was younger, people would sexualize me in this way that was weird to me,” he recalls. “I just felt like I was being more punk than sexy. Sometimes I’d jump in the crowd and people would finger me, or rip off my underwear, and I was put off or taken aback. I felt like I was this baby with whiplash.”

No longer a baby with whiplash, the Brontez of today is still punk rock, but also well-read – and a dancer. This Friday, he’s debuting a trio of live dance pieces, and a trio of dance films (The Beats are Falling Down, Itxel, and Free Jazz) made with Gary Gregerson, as part of a Berkeley Art Museum program curated by Betty Nguyen. Shot in black-and-white and kindred in spirit with works by Yvonne Rainer (“Her ideas about task-oriented choreography, and choreography that deals with the everyday, are so fact-based,” he says), the movies are a natural extension from the dynamic dance video that Irwin Swirnoff made for “Sha-Boo Lee,” by Brontez’s band, Younger Lovers. They’ve got an electric charge — they’re inspiring.

“What I like about Gary [Gregerson] and Irwin [Swirnoff] is that there is always a sense of naturalness with them,” says Brontez. “In the Bay Area, there can be this cult of clutter – everyone has their Cockette thing going, and everything has to be splattered with glitter and fuzzy purple rhinestones. With the art I make, there isn’t a lot of high concept and high camp going on. I’m literally trying to tell a story that I want to let breathe. Both Gary and Irwin are respectful of that.”

This directness is present in Rock Flawless (Bachelor), the latest Younger Lovers album, which features contributions from Bare Wires’ Matthew Melton and drummer Taaji Malik (who is also present in Gregerson’s films), as well as bandmate Mateo Corona. Recorded next door to Aunt Charlie’s Lounge at a studio on the corner of Turk and Taylor in SF, Rock Flawless trades the vagaries of romance for the truth. “When I wrote about a boy on [2008’s] Newest Romantic, it was ‘la la la’ and flowery, but on Rock Flawless I’ll write about a specific boy, in a specific neighborhood – like the Lower Haight – that fucked me over.”

Brontez also throws in a killer cover, of “Heartbroken,” by T2 featuring Jodie Aysha. He’s typically candid about its inspiration. “I first heard [the song] during this Adam4Adam trick,” he says. “I went to this guy’s house and he was a total freak. He had this way-too-close relationship with his dog. I hugged him and the dog ran off the bed and he said, ‘She hates when you take my energy away like that.’ We were fucking and he had on his Pandora and that song came on, and I was like, ‘What is this? This is what’s up!’”

What’s up for Brontez today? For starters, his neighborhood in West Oakland, where warehouse spaces like Sugar Mountain, Ghost Town, and Copland are putting on shows. “On the weekend, you see so many white kids it’s like Woodstock,” he laughs. “What’s happening here isn’t going on in San Francisco. But during the weekdays, you see the nice cars that drive by to get heroin and crack, and the regular neighborhood people.”  

What’s also going on is a strong dedication to making things happen, and making dance. “My biological clock is ticking, ticking, going ‘What have you done, girl?’,” Brontez jokes. “It’s nice to sit around waiting on boys to love you, but in the meantime…” In the meantime, he’s reading up on Rainer, Katherine Dunham, and Martha Graham. He’s watching AXIS Dance Company rehearsals. He’s drawing on his studies with choreographers Eric Kupers and Nina Haft. He’s getting set to act with Jesse Hewit and others in a film by Travis Mathews. He’s leading dance workshops. And he’s giving any “fucking squares” in dance a loving “a kick in the ass,” flyering shows punk rock-style, and choreographing pieces involving witch dancers and preachers, with titles like Whenever I Hit the Floor, I’m Like a Fucking Hurricane.

“Thank god I also read a lot of rock ‘n’ roll autobiographies,” Brontez says. “Because all of my favorite artists say the same thing: ‘They did not love me enough.’ This year, I’m going to find out who my brothers and sisters are, so we can start doing shows together.”

7:30 p.m. (DJ Myles Cooper at 6:30 p.m.), $7
Berkeley Art Museum, Gallery B
2626 Bancroft, Berk.
(510) 642-0808