He's got baby fever: A trans choreographer's surrogacy journey
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He's got baby fever: A trans choreographer's surrogacy journey
The choreographer Ashley Y.T. Yergens in New York, June 10, 2024. Yergens said he was surprised by wanting a baby: “I’m like, You are on testosterone,” he said. “You have been in normal male range for years now. What is this biological urge?” (Jeanette Spicer/The New York Times)

by Lauren Wingenroth

NEW YORK, NY.- In “prettygirl264264” (2018), choreographer Ashley R.T. Yergens threw himself a funeral.

It was absurd, and funny, with an “In Loving Memory” card in lieu of a program, and an a cappella rendition of Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.”

But it was also a dark meditation on how transgender people can be treated, even in death. “It was connected to this question of, How will I be remembered?” said Yergens, 32, who is trans. “Will I get to have a funeral in the way that other people get to be remembered?”

Yergens’ latest work, “Surrogate,” premiering this week at New York Live Arts, contains another premature life-cycle event: a birthday party for a frozen embryo. There is darkness under the surface here, too, as there often is in work by the Brooklyn-based Yergens, whose brash, irreverent dances are stuffed with obscure pop-culture references and virtuosic movement equally inspired by the postmodern tradition and the queer nightclub.

During the course of making this new work, Yergens, who recently froze 24 embryos — his eggs and an anonymous donor’s sperm — saw his parenthood journey with a surrogate end, and watched as a state Supreme Court ruling in Alabama (later essentially made ineffective by new legislation) threatened the future of IVF.

“That birthday celebration,” Yergens said, “comes from a real fear of, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to have a kid in this way.’”

Until a few years ago, Yergens wasn’t interested in becoming a parent at all. But during the pandemic, something surprising happened: He was hit with a case of baby fever.

“I’m like, You are on testosterone,” he said. “You have been in normal male range for years now. What is this biological urge?”

Yergens’ journey through the embryo freezing and surrogacy process would become source material for “Surrogate,” which also pulls from a 2008 Oprah Winfrey interview with Thomas Beatie, a trans man whose pregnancy was the object of public fascination. Yergens saw the interview as a 16-year-old. “I think it contributed to a delay in transitioning for me,” he said. “It kind of felt like, You’re going to transition, and then you’re going to be a pregnant man.”

The persistence of that stigma led Yergens to pursue using a surrogate. The process, he said, strangely mirrored his experience as a choreographer, living through the bodies of the dancers performing his work. “There’s this tension around literally asking someone to carry your genes, which is potentially life-threatening,” he said. “And then there’s the physical labor I ask people to do in dance. I got interested in how surrogacy shows up in these different ways.”

Yergens heightens and complicates this dynamic between choreographer and performer through his role in “Surrogate”: Though he is usually the central performer in his work, here he sits in the tech booth, where he makes an announcement, and sings original songs.

Social media, too, is a form of surrogacy, Yergens said, noting how it can supplant other forms of communication and how, during the pandemic, it replaced theaters as a space where artists could share their work. One monologue in “Surrogate” is based on hateful comments Yergens received on Instagram. Rewritten until they’re absurd, they are delivered by a mean, tell-it-like-it-is therapist character played by Nicola Gorham.

The structure of the piece — lots of short, fast-moving vignettes — feels like scrolling on social media, Gorham said: “It’s like an Instagram feed, where everything seems so isolated, but in fact there are these connections you don’t see at first glance, because it’s all been curated by the algorithm.”

“The algorithm,” she added, “is giving us all things Ash” — Yergens goes by Ash — “which is terrifying and amazing.”

Some of what the “Ash algorithm” spits out in “Surrogate” is “Children Will Listen” from Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” a human merry-go-round, a quote from the English philosopher Alan Watts and a meditation. “I’m someone who likes to throw in everything and the kitchen sink,” Yergens said.

More from the algorithm: early ’90s aerobics-style dances, performed by Justin Faircloth, which Yergens created by mixing and matching phrases from videos he found online. That makes the transitions between the steps difficult and, Yergens said, “creates fun mishaps.” (He is preoccupied by transitions, and yes, he’s aware of the metaphor.)

Yergens loves what he calls “lowbrow aesthetics” — wrestling, drag, cabaret. “There are definitely some choices that I make that I think are funny or thought provoking because of how dumb they are,” he said.

He also likes to include the occasional highbrow reference — like that Alan Watts quote, which is printed on a performer’s T-shirt — that he doesn’t fully understand. “I intentionally don’t learn much about it, because it allows for some absurdity to happen,” he said. “Then I like to go back after I’ve made something and I’m like, What have I done!?”

Yergens acknowledges that his work can be shocking, perhaps even inflammatory. “I guess the question I’m exploring behind the scenes of this work is, Is there some value in being a little inflammatory?” he said. “And maybe I’ll be like, nope.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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