The Creative Process

How Choreographer Joshua L. Peugh Is Pushing Past Queer Archetypes in Texas & Beyond

Peugh in rehearsal with his Dark Circles Contemporary Dance. Photo by Daley Kappenman, Courtesy DCCD

With his honest, idiosyncratic movement, Joshua L. Peugh often tells untold stories through dance. He's reimagined The Rite of Spring, for instance, at a mid-century prom with the sacrificial virgin taking the form of a young man in drag.


On top of running his Dallas-based Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh, 34, has also created highly theatrical pieces for BODYTRAFFIC, BalletX, Whim W'Him and other troupes. His recent work takes a more serious turn, exploring Arab identities in Aladdin, Habibi and myths of masculinity and LGBT themes in Bud.

He recently spoke to Dance Magazine to share the ins-and-outs of his creative process.

How He Comes Up With Such Fascinating Ideas for Dances

"I am interested in 'the human comedy,' why we do some of the curious things we do and what makes us act in contradictory ways. I encourage dancers to let go of theatricality and let the story and their messy humanity come through the movement itself. "

"My ultimate desire is to reframe questions instead of providing answers."

Why He's Going Deeper Into LGBT Themes in His Latest Work

"I didn't plan it this way, but this season we are a company of mostly queer dancers. So now I am not asking them to tell my story, it's their story too. Most choreographers who are queer spend the majority of their time creating hetero-normative choreography featuring male/female partnering. I want to represent my tribe, our needs and desires. Push past some of the queer archetypes represented in mainstream media and give them more depth. LGBT stories told by LGBT people in an authentic, truthful way."

"Since the local football stadium's lights lit up my family's front lawn, I literally grew up under the Friday Night Lights. In Bud I collaborated with Brian Kenny, a queer multimedia artist and my best friend from high school. We are exploring rituals of masculinity and the fear and shame we felt as closeted teenagers, while also celebrating our friendship."

Daley Kappenman

How Ohad Shaped Him

"Ohad Naharin is a huge influence when it comes to generating movement. One of his dancers began setting Minus 7 my first day at Korea's Universal Ballet in 2006, and when Ohad arrived a few weeks later to put the final touches on, he selected me to do the intermission improvisation, shocking the more experienced company members. His faith in my imagination and him giving me permission to follow my own personal fantasy unlocked something in me. His way of working gave me access to parts of my body and my mind that I had been neglecting. He reminded me of the pleasure of dancing."

The Influence of Theater

"Growing up in New Mexico, I was a total musical theater kid, and I thought that was my path. I am interested in acting methods. My high school theater teacher studied with Sanford Misner. Right now I'm very excited about ViewPoints, which is based in movement and the experience of letting things happen. Both Misner and ViewPoints train you to be present; to listen first and then respond. Gaga does the same thing. All of these influences have infiltrated and enhanced my creative process."

His Creations Are Team Efforts

"For Aladdin, Habibi, we made a list of plot points and each dancer made a movement to one plot point, We built the opening section that way. My dancers are available to follow their instincts. Watching each other helps disrupt our habitual patterns."

What It's Like Balancing a Company and Outside Commissions

"When I'm away on a commission, I'm able to get a lot done for Dark Circles because I'm not worried about day-to-day things. I don't have to worry about fundraising, morale issues, scheduling. I get to concentrate on the work I am creating. I get to be more present. The dancers I work with in other places who don't train with me on a daily basis, who can't easily anticipate what I might do next, remind me of colors on my palette that I may not have used in awhile. I always come home fired up and ready to push my company in new directions."

In Memoriam
A flyer showing Alberto Alonso, Fernando Alonso, Benjamin Steinberg and Alicia Alonso. Photo courtesy the author

Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.

My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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Hansuke Yamamoto in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet, which features an exciting and respectful Chinese divertissement. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.

In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."

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Dance & Activism
Allegra Bautista in Nevertheless, by ka·nei·see | collective. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.

"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.

With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.

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