Chris Black’s new solo work is based on John L. Sullivan, a feisty Irish boxer in the U.S. in the late 19th century.
“My name is John L. Sullivan and I can lick any son of a bitch in the house.” That was the calling card of the boxer, one of America’s more colorful 1880s characters, and the subject of “Tough,” a new solo piece by Bay Area dancer and choreographer Chris Black.
Black, who channels Sullivan’s pugilistic spirit in her show, which opens at Z Space in The City this week, identifies with his challenges.
“He was born poor and Irish in a time when the Irish were looked down upon. So he demanded that the world look at him a certain way,” says Black. “I’m half Irish but you know, the Irish side trumps everything else.”
The initial idea for the project came after the birth of Black’s daughter, a major life change for the performer. She discovered a new kind of vulnerability, one that came from losing some of the power and stamina required of a professional dancer.
“I started feeling really shy… walking around with a kind of chip on my shoulder,” says the diminutive Black. “That got me asking, what constitutes strength and how we perceive it? How do you convince the audience that you could kick ass?”
To keep up with the physical and mental rigors of creating and performing a concert-length solo work, Black spent months training. She says, “I can do pull-ups now and I feel strong. But I realized that what was going to work for me was to be more in the feeling of what is strength.”
Considering the current cultural schizophrenia around the subject – lionizing super heroes while exhorting young people to pursue more gentle conflict resolution – Black had her work cut out for her.
“Making this work and researching about Sullivan, I came to realize that real strength is an ability to persevere and endure,” she says. “Culturally, those are considered female qualities which I find very interesting.”
The realization has earned her a chorus of amens from women. “I’ve seem to have hit the sweet spot with women in their late 30s and early 40s. They come up afterward and say – I know what this is – I know the feeling!”
Still, she doesn’t reject the value of physical power. It’s something her 10-year-old daughter seems to understand. Black says, “It’s cool to watch her idea of what it means to be a girl in the world. And how different it is from when I grew up. She has an appreciation for having physical strength and it’s exciting to watch.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by Chris Black
Where: Z Below, 450 Florida St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; closes Aug. 9
Tickets: $20 to $25
Andrea Pflaumer is a Berkeley-based author and journalist and former dancer who writes dance and arts previews for the San Francisco Examiner. She has just published her first book: Shopping for the Real You.