Underneath The Skin

Photo by Josef Astor

‘Underneath The Skin’ is a new dance theatre work that includes choreography, spoken texts, and video projections and animation sequences. The work is based on the life of Samuel Steward (1909-1993), a gay University Professor who was challenged with how to honor his linguistic gifts as poet and novelist in a hostile social climate.

A gifted writer and intellectual, Stewart attracted the friendship of the writer Gertrude Stein (he published a book of their letters ‘Dear Sammy’: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ in 1984), the playwright Thornton Wilder, and Alfred Kinsey, with whom he eventually became an unofficial collaborator at the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research.

Steward eventually abandoned academia (and any pretense of social respectability) by reinventing himself as a tattoo artist under the name Philip Sparrow. Finally able to thrive authentically, and fueled by a moral imperative to find connectedness through his relationships, he documented his sexual encounters on index cards in a ‘Stud File’, and also wrote candidly about his homosexuality in his novels, as Phil Andros.


The multi-channel video projections will include: animated renderings of Steward’s actual tattoo designs; various modes of rendering written texts; and erotic group movement sequences.


A stylized balletic vocabulary will morph in and out of pedestrian movement. Other sequences will be interpretations of the dance technique of Isadora Duncan, and be informed by the choreographic and dramaturgical choreographic perspectives designs of Jose Limon, and James Waring. The group erotic movement sequences that will be realized as projections of bodies in various stages of undress and sexual activity.


The book of the performance will be comprised entirely of Steward’s writings from his unpublished autobiography, journals, essays, publications, interviews, and his letters. These text excerpts will be spoken live, utilized as audio narrations, and as video projections.


Steward’s many surviving artifacts offer a rare glimpse into the life of a man who disrupted societal norms and refused to bow to repressive hetero-normative social and cultural hierarchies. Photographs of Steward and his home, artifacts such as his ‘stud file’, and his drawings and tattoo designs will inform the set/costume design, and will also be utilized as projections. A large metal cube shrouded in black scrim (also serving as projection surface) will house a bare mattress on the floor. Visual and staging references will also be culled from the work of Steward’s contemporaries: the paintings of Paul Cadmus and Pavel Tchelitchew, the films of Jean Genet, and Jean Cocteau, and the photographs of George Platt Lynes and Carl Van Vechten.

‘Underneath The Skin’ will premiere at The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Oct.11-12, 2019