Getting what you want

Second annual This Is What I Want plumbs the nature of desire

Feed the need: This Is What I Want performer Annie Danger

STAGE What do you want, and when do you want it? Those questions as formulated carry as much political connotation as sexual, and it's not exactly a coincidence. Sex and politics are inextricably linked, as a glance at the news or Anthony Weiner's bulging Twitter feed will show. The questions inevitably have a commercial ring to them as well, and not just because "sex sells." The marketplace likes to pretend that consumers are all free agents. But given the countless ways it circumscribes, aggregates, activates, inactivates, or otherwise manipulates human lives via sexual desire, it's more like "sex" sells "us" in, and into, the current social system.

So if you know the answer to the above questions you're lucky. But do you also know why you want what you want? What is desire anyway? Is it basic and perennial, or is it a historically specific construction intimately involved in a system of power? Questions like these animate much contemporary art, though rarely more directly than in the wildly free and ambitious set of performance works making up This Is What I Want. Produced by choreographer Jesse Hewit, dancer Rachael Dichter (of Laura Arrington Dance), and Ernesto Sopprani of THEOFFCENTER, TIWIW baldly confronts sexual desire with a rigorous WTF?

The second annual TIWIW builds on a smaller, more spontaneous showcase thrown up at the Garage last year where, according to Hewit, "a lot of really beautiful — if quiet — things happened." The success of that venture, including the discussion it generated, encouraged TIWIW founder Hewit to come back with another round and a stronger curatorial approach. This Is What I Want, which premieres as part of the 2011 National Queer Arts Festival, cultivates new work from many notable figures in the contemporary queer performance scene. The 13 artists represented in the four-day event include Mica Sigourney, Annie Danger, Harold Burns, Tessa Wills, Anna Martine Whitehead, and Monique Jenkinson. Hewit recently spoke to the Guardian about the thinking behind revisiting TIWIW and the unexpected results when people stage their desires.

SFBG What happened last year that made you want to mount a second festival in 2011?

Jesse Hewit In last year's program, I realized that intimacy was being used as a motive, and often as a creative force, by the artists. I got so many e-mails from them individually, all this really intricate and powerful processing around the very simple prompt [of "This Is What I Want"]. For most of us, answering that question is fucking hard. It requires us to sit down with ourselves and get calm and honest in a way that isn't too practical or hip. Some people said yes to the show because they knew exactly what they wanted, and what they wanted to do for the show. Many others said yes because they felt the subversive power of not knowing, and knew that forcing themselves to spend some time with the prompt and make something would be a productive and dicey ride. It was, and is, really, really interesting to be allowed to witness or have explained what intimacy means to [someone] and how sexual desire functions or does not function for them. Defining these two things and presenting that is theater enough for me.

I've always been interested in sex as language, as commerce-capital, as culture bearer. What I always come back to is that sex is undoubtedly still the clearest leveler of our differences, and yet at the same time the most jumbled and complicated container for them. I feel like what we want and how we get it — or don't — says almost everything about how we experience power, our bodies, and our relationships to pleasure and to hope.

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