For the past year, I have been filming a documentary on the life of Ed Mock, a Black, queer experimental choreographer.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of Mock’s death from AIDS and also brought a resurgence of interest around the Bay Area in Mock’s legacy as a dancer, eccentric, guru, and provocateur.
I came to know Mock’s work indirectly, through Darryl Smith (owner of the Luggage Store — San Francisco’s oldest independently run art gallery).
I had been planning the Brontez Purnell Dance Company’s first show in 2010 and was scouting the Luggage Store as a venue.
I was showing Darryl clips of my company’s 8mm black-and-white film Free Jazz — which he then turned over to his sister, S.F.-born choreographer Amara Tabor Smith of Deep Waters Dance Theater. Amara saw a clip of my dancing and was reminded of her old mentor, Ed Mock. I then had a meeting with Amara, and she told me tales of a Black queer ancestor I had not known existed.
In 2013, Amara Tabor Smith (alongside Wayne Hazzard — head of Dancers’ Group and a former member of Ed Mock and Company) staged a five-hour site-specific dance performance titled he moved swiftly but gently down the not too crowded street…
The performance started on Grove Street near his old studio and then moved up Market Street and down Valencia to ODC Theater.
The piece was in honor of Ed Mock and a remembrance of the spirit of old San Francisco. I was a participant alongside roughly 20 other Bay Area performance artists, dancers, and musicians. It was an eclectic mix of people with varying degrees of proximity to the legend of Mock, old company members and new devotees alike.
In doing this performance, I was taken by the subject and wanted to write a book about Mock.
But a buddy of mine (the queer filmmaker Travis Mathews — I Want Your Love and Interior. Leather Bar.) said to me, “No one reads books — just make a film.”
I trusted him, and with that much, I started work on Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock.
In one year, I got four grants — including from the Creative Work Fund and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation to set work on the film, which is a timeline of Mock’s work in San Francisco from the late ’60s until his death in the mid-’80s. From the start, I was overwhelmed with the task ahead. As with most members of the generation of artists lost to AIDS, there was not a nice, neat timeline of his work anywhere, and tracking down videos for licensing damn near gave me a nervous breakdown. On the flip side, I was also very surprised to see just how much of his legacy was still around. The Museum of Performance and Design houses many of his archived articles and videos.
But I was even more taken aback by the oral histories I collected from those who knew Ed Mock.
In doing this project, I have learned that getting a group of artists together can be like herding cats, though once nailed down — the oral histories, not the cats — they flow beautifully in the film.
Not much is known about his life before he came to S.F., but some facts hold up: What I have learned about Mock from those histories and from archived documents is quite fascinating. He studied dance in Chicago and traveled as a performer on the Chitlin’ Circuit before his arrival. He taught classes at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and was in ACT Now, a late-’60s documentary film about the theater.
He was arrested after performing at the Venice Biennale in Italy in 1981 when he walked out of the theater barefoot and wearing a dress.The cops saw Mock (who spoke no Italian) and arrested him. He danced for the Pointer Sisters for a performance. He mostly improvised his movements.
The list of performers and people who took his workshops includes Kit Crawford (the owner of Clif Bars) and Ntozake Shange (who staged some of the original For Colored Girls performances at one of Mock’s studios). Sapphire (the author of Precious) was also a devotee and took Mock’s classes in the ’70s. In addition, Mock once did a performance with Robin Williams and improvised a dance for Bobby McFerrin.
I have often sat looking at pictures of the man, going over and over in my head what his fears, frustrations, and anxieties were. There must have been many. His position as a gay Black man in the classically White world of modern dance proved difficult — sometimes calling into question his legitimacy. Mock was not just a jazz dancer, as the world wanted to neatly categorize him. His work combined elements of performance, pedestrian movement, and acting technique, all meeting in the singularity that was Mock himself a prolific postmodernist well before that identity was accessible. He paid a price for this, of course, which many in his circle believe to be the reason that much of his practice (compared to his contemporaries’) went underfunded.
As queer people, art makers, radicals, and allies alike, many of us are still deep in the process of excavating the memories of our fallen spiritual family, in every sense of the word. We are often surprised to find the bits and pieces of their lives peeking through buried histories.
As a queer Black dancer and choreographer in the Bay Area, it is humbling for me to know that I am not the first or the last, but part of a tradition. I am not here to invent the wheel but to take on the equally taxing challenge of keeping it moving forward and sometimes torturing myself with this question: “What would the world look like if he had lived?”
Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock premieres at the Lab, 2948 16th St., on March 31.
Brontez Purnell has been publishing, performing, and curating in the Bay Area for more than a decade. He is the author of Johnny Would You Love Me … (If My Dick Were Bigger)? (Rudos and Rubes, 2015). Follow him on Twitter at @youngerlovers and on Instagram at @brontezpurnell.