a once in a lifetime event

American Utopia’s Chris Giarmo on Movement, Political Art, and Spike Lee’s Lipstick Advice

Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo, in their element. Photo: HBO

From the very first moment dance and vocal captain Chris Giarmo emerges from behind the metallic curtains in American Utopia, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off him: His subtle, delicate movements ebb and flow behind David Byrne like a sentient shadow, and, as a bonus, he also gets to handle a fake human brain while wearing fabulous eye shadow. Giarmo, as well as his fellow vocalist and dancer Tendayi Kuumba (whom he lovingly refers to as his “onstage partner in crime”), are barely a few meters from Byrne’s gyrating hips throughout the entire performance, moves that can now be experienced at home thanks to Spike Lee’s adaptation for HBO. We’ll do some arm chops to that! Last week, Giarmo graced Vulture with his presence over Zoom to discuss the show’s choreography (created by downtown legend Annie-B Parson), the special tattoo he got after American Utopia’s initial tour ended, and the excellent lipstick advice Lee gave him.

How did you first fall into David’s orbit?
It was way back in 2009. The first thing I worked on with him was a tour he did with Brian Eno for their album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. I was the assistant choreographer to Annie-B. I had worked with her since 2005; I performed with her dance company and worked as an assistant choreographer to her. I heard that David was working on a new tour for his album, American Utopia, and he was looking for backup singers who could dance. I also worked on Contemporary Color, his color guard project, but as a dancer. Never as a singer. So I wrote to him at his office and said something like, Hey, I hear you’re looking for backup singers that can dance, I’m available. He responded, Cool, would you be willing to be dance captain too? He didn’t audition me. It was a little bit of a crapshoot in the best way.

It was a perfect gig for me, not only performing the style of movement that I’m comfortable with, but helping everyone else feel comfortable with what that style is. We really finished the show on the road. We rehearsed a total of three weeks before we actually started gigging in 2018. We built the show on the road and that was the real chunk of work I did — bringing the choreography to life on the road. By the time we got to Broadway, it was gravy. We built this incredible family and it was a natural progression for us.

How did you translate and teach this choreography to the other dancers?
I would jokingly say at the beginning of the tour, and once we were on the road, that there were only two people who really knew what this tour was going to be: me and David. Among everyone, we were the only ones who had performed Annie-B’s choreography before. Her work is so deceivingly simple to view that I feel like there’s an initial perception of, Oh, this is going to be a piece of cake. But the thing that’s so brilliant about her as an artist is that she values virtuosity in form above all else. She’s interested in all those tiny details — the breath, the eye gaze. That’s the translation. To invite a new understanding of what dance can be. So much of our culture is, “So you think you can dance.” There’s so much more nuance to that art form. This type of movement often gets left out of people’s understanding of dance.

What was the best thing you taught David and the best thing David taught you?
My favorite thing about David as a mover, and Annie-B has said this in the past, is that David is her favorite choreographer. So much of her work was taken from his natural movement. A lot of what we did on the road was clicking into that — being onstage with him and seeing how he’s moving. Me and Tendayi served as a shadow and echo for all of these relationships to David, and how it lived in that live performance world. He’s such an incredible choreographer even though he doesn’t think that.

It’s funny, because David has said multiple times that he doesn’t consider himself to be a dancer. What’s your read on that opinion?
I could answer that in two ways. In the context of Broadway, he’s definitely a dancer. He’s Chicago. He’s South Pacific. But if I’m thinking in a removed, downtown theater context, I’d say everything is choreography. So everything is dance.

Everything is dance.
I’ll give you one sassy, gossipy sound bite. We had incredible reception from folks who are deep in the Broadway industry throughout the show’s run. They appreciated not only the difficulty of everything but also understood the extra difficulty it took to make it look as easy as it did. However, there was one Broadway legend — and I’m not naming names — who I met and initially complimented me on my vocals and said how great I sounded. But added, Well, at least the dancing wasn’t that hard. And I graciously took it in and curtsied. It shows that there’s difficulty in all forms in dance and performance, and just because you might not notice it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Maybe the fact that you’re not noticing the difficulty is actually an indication of how difficult it is. For us, every single breath and sip of water was choreography. I want to constantly shout that out, because it’s so impressive.

Can you give an example of a movement that, like you said, may seem simple to a viewer but is actually quite difficult to perform?
Annie-B always jokes that when we’re performing something difficult we should flash a neon sign that reads, This is hard, this is hard! [Laughs.] There’s one particular set of movements in “Don’t Worry About the Government” that’s an accumulation. It’s a numerical pattern of several moves that Tendayi and I have to perform while singing. It’s a convoluted harmony part, for one, and we also do a great vocal flip as well. I think that’s the most difficult movement in the show. If that looks easy, we did a very good job.

Do you have a favorite movement that always brings you the most joy?
The song that does it for me every night is “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. The movement is so wonderful because it’s purposely very naïve. Hearing my voice on a recording, singing that song with David, is one of the highlights of my career. It’s one of the best songs ever written. At the end of our tour, I wanted to get a tattoo to remind me of what this life-changing thing that I went through was like. Instead of getting lyrics of the song tattooed, I got the choreography to “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” on my forearm. It’s the dance steps of what I was doing. I got it to remind myself that, if I ever feel stuck in my life again, I can look at it and remember that I performed this incredible song, and I moved and danced to it. It’s a great reminder of how active and mobile I can be.

One of the more distinctive visual elements of the show, especially since the stage is so monochromatic, is your striking lipstick and eye shadow. Can you tell me more about how you created your stage presence?
The short answer is that I wore a full face of makeup to represent myself as a queer person. I’m not a straight dude, and it’s important for me to share that side of myself with the audience. I’m also a drag queen, and that’s part of my identity. I wholeheartedly believe that glamour is resistance. Spike Lee saw the show at least 20 times, maybe more. I hadn’t met him up until a week before we were scheduled to film. I have insane respect for him as a director and love everything that he does, but I was genuinely unsure of what his opinion would be of my makeup. Sometimes it’s a strange thing for people to see me wearing makeup, and I was curious about what this incredible auteur would think of this aesthetic decision. So we were warming up for one of the shows, and Spike was in the theater checking out angles and stuff. I went up to him to introduce myself and we chatted for a bit. Finally he goes, What color lipstick do you wear for the show? I was like, okay, this is it. I was expecting him to say something like, You know, I think it would fit my vision better if you were more neutral. So I go, I wear a neutral pink. And he responds, Nah, fire-engine red for you. FDNY red! I want bright-red lips and the nails to match! That floored me. More importantly, in addition to Spike’s acceptance and allyship, he was right. The red worked so much better.

I still don’t have words. I’ve never felt so taken care of by someone who’s captured my image before. We’re a weird art family — we lived on a bus together for a year traveling all over the world. When we met Spike and his team, we learned that his team had been working with him since Do the Right Thing. They’re a crazy art family, too, united around art. It was an incredible reflection and I knew instinctively when I met the team that it would be a perfect collaboration.

Something that Annie-B told me last year, which has really stuck with me, is that she wants the audience to realize that dance matters and how it can be easily ingrained in your memory. How do you think Spike’s directorial vision reflects that message?
Annie-B recently sent everybody an email where she talks about this exact thing. She wrote about how respected she felt by Spike’s eye. She had never experienced that from a collaborator before, who had valued dance as being important. It’s amazing that she talked about that with you before it even happened, and it came true. I felt that exact same thing when I watched the performance. It was a telling moment for me when I was watching — I knew I was moved because of the dance. I feel a personal pride about it.

I love that you all go into the audience while performing the last song “Road to Nowhere,” because that was a special addition for the film. Who’s idea was that?
That was Spike’s idea, and it was a last-minute decision that we made during the filming day. It was like, Oh, cool, another challenge, let’s do it! 

Did Spike give everyone a pep talk or advice before you started to shoot?
The most significant thing that he did was invite some of the mothers of victims of police violence to attend the show. Eric Garner’s mother was there, and earlier in the week, Sean Bell’s family was also in attendance. That’s a huge part of our show — ending with Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” where we call out the names of people of color who were victims of police violence or white supremacists. To meet those people and really understand … to have an extreme, immediate human connection to what we were standing and fighting for, and literally screaming for, was incredibly inspiring. There was a ton of hyping and pep talking by Spike, too. But his inclusion of those mothers was the most inspiring thing. That song is a super-cathartic moment not just for performers but for the audience. We invite the audience to state the names of the people who have been killed. The act of saying a name is a kind of immediate accountability. A lot of older, white audience members who attended our show wouldn’t necessarily be involved in that kind of discourse, but asking them to say these names enforces one to understand that it’s true. You can’t unsay a name once you’ve said it. That’s such a powerful device. It elevated the song to its highest potential of catharsis. Listen, performing “Hell You Talmbout” taught us a lot about audiences.

What did it teach you?
Some people believe that art isn’t supposed to be political, to the point where they would sit through an entire show of fun, joyous music that they grew up listening to and then be able to have an important message of hope — that’s a very minimal ask — kill their buzz. We had a lot of people walk out during that song. One audience member, during the Broadway run, repeatedly yelled out, But what about the police!? There’s a vocal backlash, and it’s pretty white and pretty male, to whenever David says something about politics. These people say it taints his art and that he succumbed to the liberal media. These people feel personally attacked by an artist who suddenly becomes political or continues a personal progress of growth. I remember we were in St. Petersburg, Florida, during our tour and a man ran up to the stage during the show and yelled, This is bullshit! Afterward I remember thinking, How can that person listen to this music and think that it’s anything but self-critical? It’s not patriotic schlock. If you had a misconception about David and what he stood for, that’s on you. David didn’t pull a fast one on you. You were just missing the boat. Now you’re aware of it and if you don’t like it, sorry, that’s on you.

American Utopia: Chris Giarmo on Spike Lee’s Lipstick Advice