Toe-to-Toe: A Small Dancer Swallows a Heavyweight Champ Whole

In Tough, dance artist Chris Black's portrayal of John L. Sullivan isn't exactly straight out of central casting. She's 9 inches shorter than the swaggering, loutish turn-of-the-century heavyweight boxing champ was, and about half his weight; Black's waist is the same circumference as one of Sullivan's legs. Yet Black, who's previously developed this piece at RAWdance, Iowa State University, and CounterPULSE and next week performs it at Z Space backed by an all-female team of collaborators, has a deep affinity with Sullivan, and not just because they're both Irish-American, with families from the same town: Athlone, in County Roscommon. SF Weekly talked to Black about what fascinates her about the pugilist, her process for embodying a body so different from hers, and what it means to be “tough.”

SF Weekly: How did you first find out about Sullivan?

Chris Black: I had this vague awareness of him for as long as I can remember. My family is very heavily Irish-American. I had a friend in college, and the greeting we would give one another was, “My name is John L. Sullivan, and I can lick any son of a bitch in the house.” I didn't know much more about him other than that he was this famous boxer and that was his line.

Once you started to learn more, what drove you to create a show about him?

[Sullivan] was known as this specimen of physical manhood, this icon of strength. He became internationally famous in the English-speaking world and went on tour in Europe and Australia — but at a time when the Irish in America were still considered lower class. He grew up poor. He just didn't give a shit that he wasn't supposed to amount to anything. He didn't care that nobody was a boxer for a living back then.

Even if you were a prizefighter, you had to do other stuff. [Boxing] was illegal. He pushed the whole sport into being legal and saw it through its transition into gloved fighting. He made a million dollars in the late 1800s and then proceeded to spend, drink, and give it all away.

Bareknuckle boxing — you think, “Oh yeah, you knock a guy out,” but his most famous match went on for two and a half hours in over 100-degree heat. It went 75 rounds because a round wasn't over until somebody went down; there was no timing of the rounds at that point. It was this sport of endurance.

Your body type is so different from Sullivan's. What was your process for learning to embody him?

Whenever I'm drawing on the past and images and I'm wanting to present them the way that memory presents — where it's not linear; it's imagistic — I'll take still imagery, whether it's artwork or photographs, and create those shapes and figure out different ways of linking them that don't necessarily follow a linear progression. You end up with these images that are all familiar, and they have the vocabulary of the subject matter, but it's not pantomime.

Because that would be boring.

Exactly. That would look stupid. I did something similar with [Tough] with photographs and artwork, both of [Sullivan] and of other fighters from the era. That's where I started, just trying to get to the posture. The posture from that era is so different from the way we all stand now anyway. There's this chest that sticks out for men, especially, that, if you look around, you don't see happening anymore.

What's funny about it though is that the longer the process has gone on, the more I've let go of a lot of that. I started to realize that what seems to work best is stuff that I can do with my body that has that feeling to it for me, internally. I just kept writing in my notebook, “It's all in the attitude.” If it feels that strong, it reads that strong, even if it's not a movement that he himself would have done. I'm not portraying him. It's not Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain. The idea is to just sort of swallow him, and then there's something in me that can meet up with whatever that thing was. How do you find that intersecting point?

What does that “attitude,” that toughness that Sullivan had, mean to you?

I forget how small I am on a regular basis. Walking down the street, I feel like, “Okay, you wanna fuck with me? I can totally kick your ass!” I feel like I have some sort of connection to the feeling that [Sullivan] must have had.

I walked through the world thinking that everybody had experienced that. Then I realized that some people, especially women, were like, “Oh, I wish I felt that way. I've never felt that way.” It's that little kernel of something that makes a person of this background — even if he was a big guy, he wasn't the biggest guy — become the person he became.

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