HOLLY BASS, a bookish thirty-something poet, writer and sometime teacher, wears funky black glasses and a serious gaze. She's the last person one might think of as a diva.
And yet Saturday and Sunday she'll tell all in her autobiographical dance-play "Diary of a Baby Diva," reveling in the glitz of the stage, relishing her very own divahood. She's ready for her close-up.
Bass considers the glamour of it all, and what's not to love about the transformative power of divahood? There are the wonderful campy outfits, sparkly with sequins too, too lavish for the light of day. And the shoes, daringly high and strappy; the hair coifed to perfection; the makeup, all dewy shimmer; and the nails, a perfect-10 set. But becoming a diva takes more than a well-stocked closet and a gross of Estee Lauder cosmetics.
Bass wants people to get in touch with their inner divas. This weekend at Dance Place, she puts her own divine diva persona to the test in her coming-of-age tale, a melange of movement and monologue that she wrote and stars in. Raised in the San Jose, Calif., suburbs, Bass attended what she calls an "extreme, fanatical fundamentalist" Christian school but secretly watched "Soul Train," forbidden fruit in her strict Baptist household. Today Bass calls herself a performance artist, a term she worries is too loaded for what she believes is a tame show: "I'm not doing anything really that controversial or even avant-garde."
A writer since early childhood, Bass came to dance later, during high school, and she pursued modern dance at Sarah Lawrence College while concentrating on sociology and creative writing. "I had an ugly-duckling childhood," she says. "I was bookish -- which is now cool -- and had idiosyncrasies. . . . I just remember feeling awkward for maybe 10 years of my life." While living in New York after college, Bass found an antidote for that ugly-duckling feeling.
"I don't remember exactly when I saw my first drag queen," she says, but she soon discovered a sense of connection to these elaborately attired men in women's clothing who sang and danced with abandon. "People are so, so uncomfortable with blurred identities," Bass says, "with people who blur the line. 'Is it a girl or a guy?' I, on the other hand, feel that [drag queens] are magical people, really free."
The long and sometimes arduous birth of Bass's stage persona, Baby Diva, was conceived in response to her relationship with drag performers and the gay male friends she hung out with. "For example, I say, 'I'm a gay man inside a woman's body,' " Bass blithely reveals, then qualifies herself.
"I don't feel like a boy inside a woman's body . . . and I don't want to be a cultural vulture that fetishizes another group. I just feel like I could be a gay man, because [some] gay men give themselves permission to do creative, wacky things."
And permission to be absolutely fabulous, to test limits of propriety, to be gawky or awkward or overdressed without a care in the world is what Bass has been seeking in her quest for divahood. "You can have the nicest clothes and the most expensive makeup," she observes, "but truly fabulous people, I think, have a love for life and an appreciation for themselves, and that just shows."
"DIARY OF A BABY DIVA" -- Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7. Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. 202-269-1600.