A NEW KIND OF MUSE
by William Gooch
published June 5, 2009
An interview with Davon Rainey
of Le Serpent Rouge!
playing at Company XIV
through June 6
At first glance Davon Rainey is a mystery. His well-stretched feet and etched, turned-out thigh muscles bear witness to the
impeccable classical training Rainey received in some of the country’s most elite dance academies. One would expect to find a dancer of
Rainey’s pedigree honing his skills in more established ballet companies. Yet, he has chosen to develop and play muse to Company XIV’s
artistic director, Austin McCormick. After recently watching Rainey as the drag queen/serpent in Le Serpent Rouge!, I can testify that he has made a wise choice.
A couple of days after his performance, Davon Rainey took out a little time to talk to me about his passion, Company XIV, and
anything and everything in between.
What is your
Davon Rainey: I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee
by a single mom. I started tap dancing when I was six years old. Later I studied African and
jazz dance. I went to an arts magnet junior high school and then I went off to study classical ballet at Interlochen Arts Academy in
Michigan for high school.
Michigan is a long ways from Memphis, Tennessee. Why did you choose to study at Interlochen?
Davon Rainey: My ballet teacher in Memphis attended there
and thought that Interlochen was a great choice to continue my training.
Interlochen Arts Academy is known for its classical ballet training. Yet,
after graduation you chose to study at the Julliard School instead of a strictly professional ballet school like SAB or the San Francisco
Ballet School. Why Julliard?
Davon Rainey: My roommate at Interlochen told me that
Julliard was auditioning for its freshmen class. At the time, I knew nothing about Julliard, but because the audition was in NYC, I went
along without really knowing a whole lot about the school. I was just excited about a trip to NYC. [Laughter] Anyway, I auditioned and got accepted into the
program. In retrospect, I think I looked at it as an excuse to live in NYC.
How did you get into Company XIV?
Davon Rainey: Austin and I studied together at Julliard and
I was also in one of the pieces he choreographed at Julliard. After Julliard, I was performing with Jacquelyn Buglisi and Donelan
Foreman’s company and some freelancing with some other small dance companies, Austin contacted me about being in a dance film that he was
making. A piece by Austin that I had seen at Julliard was going to be part of the film and I really wanted to be in that
I was amazed that someone as young as Austin was so ambitious and
was trying to do so many different and amazing things. He also intimated that he wanted to start his own dance company. At the time, I
think Austin was about 21 years old. Anyway, we later shot the film and then when Austin formed his company, he asked me to be a
In the two pieces I have
seen you perform with Company XIV, you have performed gender-bending roles. How did you come to do these roles and is there special
preparation for these types of roles?
Davon Rainey: How I prepare for these types of roles is not
to get too muscular. I can muscle up very easily. As for my current role in Le Serpent Rouge!,
I am downstage a lot for my drag queen numbers.
So, you consider your
character a drag queen, not a gender illusionist?
Davon Rainey: Yes, I do portray my character as a drag
queen or a boy dressing as a woman. I am doing drag queen, gender-bending, not a man who can easily pass as a woman. In fact, I don’t
shave my legs for this role to give more of an effect of gender-bending. In this role, you
see a man who is assuming feminine postures.
This character has to perform numbers by Peggy Lee and Eartha Kitt. I knew that for each song, I had to prepare a very
different interpretation, because Eartha and Peggy were so different as entertainers. I listened to their music a lot. I try to
understand what my character is saying juxtaposed against what Peggy and Eartha are singing. Also, the day of a performance I try to
watch videotapes of different female archetypes like Madonna or Tina Turner, which helps get me into a feminine way of moving and
Had you performed works in
which you were corseted before you joined Company XIV, and what were the adjustments you had make with your technique or
Davon Rainey: Well, it feels like a second skin now, but at
first it was very difficult to move and breathe. Bending over was particularly a challenge. Because people are not used to seeing dancers
in corsets, audiences actually pay more attention to the movement of the torso. It also gets their attention away from legs and feet. Now,
I can a wear a corset any time. [Lots of
How do you channel Eartha
Kitt and Peggy Lee so well?
Davon Rainey: When I think of Eartha Kitt, I think of being
like a firecracker, an overly sexual cartoon character. Her voice is gravely but sweet at the same time. She had such a powerful essence.
I also draw from my family members who grew up watching Eartha Kitt and I channel their experience of being fans of her into my
For me, Peggy Lee’s songs are very melancholy and sad, but hopeful. And I try to channel those emotions.
Have you performed non-gender-bending roles with Company XIV?
Davon Rainey: Yes, recently I performed a man in a dance
piece by Austin called Delusions of Grandeur, based on a poem by Charles Bukowski. It
originally started out as a solo but later morphed into a love triangle.
There is currently a lack
of black dancers in American mainstream companies. In Company XIV you are given a range of roles to perform. What is your opinion on this
lack of African American dancers and the opportunities afforded you at Company XIV?
Davon Rainey: I am so grateful for the opportunities at
Company XIV. I know that when people come to see our work, it’s obvious that I am the only black dancer in the group. I don’t see myself
as the only African American dancer but as another performer. However, when I see large ballet companies and there are so few or no black
dancers, it does concern me. I mean the ballet world seems exclusive and dated when it doesn’t reflect the rest of the country. I think
young people are turned off when they don’t see themselves reflected on stage or something they can relate to. That is one of the
reasons I am so happy to be in Company XIV, a company that is doing fresh, exciting work that is inclusive.
Where would you like to go
next in your career?
Davon Rainey: I am very open to new performing
opportunities and experiences. I would love to be able to get more audiences to the type of dance theatre we are doing at Company XIV. I
just want to keep on performing.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by Michael Hart
Gooch’s review of Le Serpent Rouge!