• Zoe Phillips

Dancing mortal: Xander McGowan's "DANSEUR" to show the human side of dancers

The multimedia project sends a message of artistic exploration that aims to portray dancers as they really are: human. 

📷: Xander McGowan

Xander McGowan’s dancing career started in the corner of a ballet studio, watching his mother take class. His mom wasn’t a professional dancer, but she enjoyed the experience of a recreational class enough that, when she couldn’t find a babysitter for seven-year-old McGowan, she brought him along as a spectator. Afterward, he remembers looking up to her and asking if boys could do what she was doing — soon after, he was enrolled in a local studio. 

“I quickly fell in love with the motion through space,” McGowan told me in an email, “the jumps and the turns. The athleticism of the art.” The rest, as McGowan describes it, is history: In 2010, he won a scholarship to the John Cranko School in Stuttgart and upon his graduation in 2012 he joined the Stuttgart Ballet, where he was promoted to Soloist in 2018.  

McGowan’s repertoire is far-reaching — his roles cover a few centuries of choreography and a breadth of artistic styles. A few were even created just for him, but his artistry does not stop there. For years, he has been teaching himself music production and has released 10 hip hop and rap albums to date. Now, McGowan is in the process of publishing his 11th and most ambitious project: “DANSEUR,” a multimedia exploration of his personal experience as a male ballet dancer. The project includes a 100-piece digital photo album, four music visuals, and a 10-track digital album. The three sections come together in a cohesive message of artistic exploration that aims to portray dancers as they really are: human. 

Often, McGowan wrote, “we (dancers) are seen as some sort of animal in a zoo which we are not.” Indeed, a stage can create a barrier between artist and observer, and McGowan aims to meld these two perspectives in “DANSEUR.” His collection of digital photos shows him dancing through a forest, caught in poses that display his physical ability as a trained artist. At the same time, his movements remain grounded through the universality of the trees and the earth that surrounds him. “Performing artists are human as well,” McGowan wrote. 

📷: Xander McGowan

McGowan’s music visuals, a dance-centric take on music videos, offer similar insight. His moves are simple but executed in detail and also surrounded by nature. It may feel far removed from ballet’s clean stage and shiny curtains, but his artistry works to connect the two worlds. This connection is important to McGowan — his identities as a dancer and a human are impossible to separate, even amid ballet’s reputation as an art form with a history of sticking to itself. 

Instead of providing one message or story about this conflict, McGowan was careful to keep “DANSEUR” in the abstract: “Much like real life,” he wrote, “you cannot separate a single experience by itself. Everything is connected.” 

This might be most true in McGowan’s “Day Job,” one of the 10 songs on “DANSEUR”’s album. This project is the first time McGowan addresses his ballet career in his music, and the result is a witty track of lyrics that use the traditional bravado of rap music to reflect on McGowan’s experience in ballet. While masculinity in rap is often only defined through an oppression of the feminine, McGowan’s music subverts this message with a new take: “The only thing I’m flexing is my muscles,” he sings, “working on my craft and not my hustle.” Later, he sings, “and when you call me gay, you can come and catch a fade … blood, sweat and tears is what I put in, but you’ll never know what goes behind the curtain.” The track is full of delightfully subtle references to ballet in an absolute takedown of prejudices against male ballet dancers. All in all, it pushes the listener to reconsider their definition of rap and their perceptions of men in tights all at once. 

McGowan finalized “DANSEUR” while self-isolating from the coronavirus, a pandemic he acknowledges will most likely change ballet in more ways than delayed and cancelled performances. Nevertheless, “DANSEUR”’s message will stay the same: “We (dancers) are not the fantasy that the audience projects on us,” McGowan wrote. In fact, this message of humanity might even be underscored by a world currently without stages and theaters. In quarantine, we are left to share personal experiences as equals, and McGowan’s work does just that. 

“DANSEUR” will be officially released on June 21. McGowan is currently publishing his photo collection on both his Instagram accounts, @xandermcgowan and @prod.xander, on a daily basis. On June 21, the four music visuals will be available on YouTube and the 10-track digital music album will be released on Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal, SoundCloud, Amazon, and Pandora. 

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Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!