“‘Pioneer’ — I have trouble with that word,” says Brontez Purnell, sitting in the sunny backyard of his West Oakland home and grasping for the best language with which to describe Ed Mock.
It’s a task that the popular dancer, musician, author, and visual artist has meditated on for the past two years while directing his first documentary — about influential San Francisco dancer Ed Mock, who died from AIDS in 1986. Mock’s work was definitely daring: experimental, free, genre-bending performance at the forefront of the alternative West Coast dance scene in the 1970s. But with Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock, Purnell is more interested in identifying lineages than he is in applauding originality.
“It’s not always to me about being so cutting-edge, I feel like we are soldiers in a tradition,” Purnell says in a rough cut of the film. “I want people to look at this and know that we have brothers and sisters all throughout history, and we also have to keep in the tradition of knowing what our past is.”
Originally from Chicago, story has it that Mock’s first time dancing was when he climbed on top of his parents’ poolroom as a child and did a little number for the customers. Mock went on to study with esteemed teachers such as Jimmy Payne, Katherine Dunham, and Lester Horton. In 1966, he moved to San Francisco and became a choreographer and dance instructor himself, teaching at ACT and elsewhere. With a specialty in improvisation and blending an array of styles, from mime techniques to jazz dance, Mock soon became a star of the San Francisco dance scene.
Purnell describes Mock’s work as proto-performance art — before the discipline had really taken hold — as well as crucial, under-historicized influence. “For my own work, Mock represents the missing choreographic link between Alvin Ailey, Anna Halprin, and Bill T. Jones,” he writes in a statement about the film.
The documentary is filled with joyous recollections of not only Mock’s dancing, but his magnetic personality. In interviews interspersed with clips of Mock performing and portraits of him from Lynne Redding’s beautiful photographic homage Ed Mock and Company Dance, Mock’s former friends and students describe him as a revered instructor, a widely desired and fluid romantic partner, and an always-fashionable socialite who unwaveringly commanded the room.
“He knew that he was a black man who was also a beacon for us young people of color,” says dancer Rhodessa Jones in the film. “He knew that all of that was going down when we were watching him in class.”
The documentary serves as a peek into the artistic culture of San Francisco in the ’60s and ’70s: spontaneous, bohemian, sexual, flamboyant. It’s also a reflection on the abruptness with which so many artistic lineages were cut short due to the AIDS epidemic. Throughout, a lingering question hovers over the film: What else would Mock have achieved; how many more dancers would Mock have directly influenced if he hadn’t died so young?
“It’s really satisfying to me to just know that there was an Ed,” say Purnell. “I feel like it’s kind of engrained that dance is a matriarchal tradition, which is totally fine, but with the AIDS epidemic and having so many of those artists swept away, it was like: Who was this generation of men making this kind of abstract work; What were their lives like?”
Purnell, who now heads the Brontez Purnell Dance Company, first became aware of Mock when prolific Bay Area dancer and choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith, who studied with Mock and appears in the film, told Purnell that a dance piece of his reminded her of Mock’s work. Years later, Tabor-Smith produced a ritualistic public performance tribute to Mock entitled He Moved Swiftly but Gently Down a Not Too Crowded Street: Ed Mock and Other True Tales in a City That Once Was, in which Purnell took part. The experience cemented his interest in researching and preserving Mock’s legacy.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my god, that’s my dad,’” Purnell recalls. “’That is definitely an ancestor I never knew existed.’”
Purnell finally received funding for the project about two years ago, and is currently in the final stages of post-production. As part of the process, he did a residency at The Lab in San Francisco that consisted of multiple events and culminated in a screening of a rough cut of the film at the end of March. In mid-March, Purnell threw the No New Art No New Dance Fest. That night at The Lab, he stalked around the room in white overalls covered in the words “STOP MEN” wearing a painting like a poncho and pasted paper to his forehead with spit while a collaborator scribbled on the stage with a mop and a bucket of black paint.
Although Purnell is definitely a multidisciplinary artist, those who know his in-your-face work might be surprised at the thought of him making a straight-forward documentary. Purnell promises to enliven the format with poetry by Marvin K White and dance interludes featuring remixed choreographies of Mock’s work — in effect, taking up and expanding a creative lineage cut short.
“The cross-section of his career, placement in the underground dance world, and experiences as a gay black man who died of AIDS early in the pandemic, these parallel my life and are barely written or recorded,” writes Purnell in his statement. “We — artists, Black queers, Bay Area dancers, HIV+ gay men — have to extract our collective past and create the historical record.”