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Flash Flashback, 4-11-02: Between the Darkness and the Light
Dendy Conjures Graham, Nijinsky, and His Own Demons

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

(Editor's note: The following story is based on reporting which took place in 1997 and 1998. A version of this profile originally appeared in the New York Times.)

NEW YORK -- Drinking a glass of orange juice, in a white tank-top and jeans, Mark Dendy was holding forth in his Lower East Side apartment on his riskiest creation yet. Fittingly for a wide-ranging discussion pegged to the upcoming premiere of "Dream Analysis" at the Joyce Theater's Altogether Different Festival, Dendy had also been talking about his life, including the long ago time he was deterred from slitting his wrists by the words of a dance pioneer. While his latest work would go into his family's psycho-history, like many geniuses Dendy was also bleeding great art.

"I wanted to explore the thin line between madness and genius," explained Dendy. If that line is thin, Dendy's dramatis personae were phat: Two Martha Grahams played by drag queens (Dendy and Richard Move), two Vaslav Nijinskys (Dendy and Lawrence Keigwin, who contributed to the choreography for these sections), a character who's vocation in the dance play was as a Judy Garland drag queen, and who more or less stood in for the real-life Dendy; a real life drag queen whose real vocation was as the illegitimate daughter of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, and who Dendy cast as both an eccentric aunt and a well-meaning psychotherapist; and two very recognizable, if unnamed, characters who (only slightly) lampooned the drill sergeant, Graham-spawned modern dance teacher. In its final form, the work would include an exorcism, a Nijinksy-bestowed blow job, and a cleansing, slightly fey epilogue for two faunes.

"Mark's quite different from anyone else in this year's festival," Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce, said.

In consultation with the psychotherapist Dr. Ronald Vereen, Dendy wrote the script for the 90-minute piece, as with many of the 46 works he had created at that point, going back to when he was 21. Dramatically, the work would also draw from Mr. Dendy's celebrated career as a female impersonator on the club competition circuit, mostly as television-evangelist transvestite Sandy Sheets. He also played Amanda in Jane Comfort's deconstruction of Tennessee Williams's "Glass Menagerie," and stole the show when he hosted the 1995 New York Dance and Performance Awards (or "Bessies") as Martha.

In 1998, when we spoke, Dendy was poised to reach out to a wider audience. Also that year, Pacific Northwest Ballet premiered its fourth commission from Dendy, and he presented a site-specific piece using the entire Kennedy Center facility.

In the surreal "Dream Analysis," which received rave reviews after it opened at the Joyce, the male Judy Garland impersonator talks to his psychiatrist about a recurring dream involving childhood traumas, his aunt (institutionalized after she sent naked pictures of herself to the church deacons; this is where the exorcism comes in), his mother, Nijinsky, and Graham. He desperately wants to rescue his aunt, resolve his anger towards his mother and Martha, and put the two halves of Nijinsky -- the inspired virtuoso and the one institutionalized for the latter part of his life -- back together again. Martha prescribes a sacrifice: Judy dances and sings herself to death to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," infamously choreographed to previously by Nijinsky. Through this rite, Nijinsky is made whole again. As a coda, Dendy offers his 10-minute version of the Debussy-Nijinsky classic in his own "Afternoon of the Faunes."

To tell this tale, Dendy employs Graham-style contractions and plies, his versions of two additional Nijinsky ballets, dramatic satire and plenty of speeches based on actual Graham remarks, such as "I never destroyed anyone who didn't want to be destroyed." Martha and Nijinsky dance a pas de deux. Nijinsky recites monologues inspired by his diary. And everyone sings Judy Garland classics, albeit with lyrics slightly reworked (by Varla Jean Merman). "Don't put your mind through such aerobics/When there's always psychotropics," the psychiatrist croons to her patient, to the melody of "The Trolley Song."

If all this sounds heady and more than a little labyrinthine, the choreographer is well aware of the need to entertain. He recalled that his choreography teacher Martha Myers, former dean of the school at the American Dance Festival, once advised him: "If you really want to get somebody on your side, you don't always go to the door and bang it down. Sometimes you have to come in the back door with a key lime pie."

Dendy serves his key lime in the form of biting humor. Besides the high quotient of drag queens in the dance-play, he even spoofs his own artistic pretensions. At one point, the psychiatrist asks the patient, "Would you like to talk about why you feel a need to get attention by shocking people?" The Garland impersonator responds, "No, because this is a live performance for a paying audience, and that would be too self-referential." The psychiatrist agrees, "We couldn't have that in a downtown dance performance piece."

It is nothing new for a downtown performer to reveal his personal life or to explore complex themes. But Mr. Dendy has the choreographic and literary gifts to pull it off. "He's not only a dance artist, but a theater artist," said Charles Reinhart, the co-director of the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., and a father figure for many young choreographers.

"It's serious work," added Reinhart, who has known Dendy since he was a student at ADF, which has commissioned some of his dances "He's very North Carolina. He grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, which is famous for great writers. They get to a sense of the human condition from the viewpoint of somebody grown up in North Carolina, but dealing with universal themes. Drag queens or no drag queens, his work has implications about our society and human nature -- where the darkness and lightness meet."

The lightness was often evident as Mr. Dendy rehearsed in December in the downtown studios of Pentacle, delighting his cast by imitating Graham and other female icons. Observing Scott Hess's Judy Garland drag queen reclining on the psychiatrist's couch, built in the abstract style of the sculptor and frequent Graham designer Isamu Noguchi, Dendy pronounced, mimicking Graham, "I defy anyone to get a good night's sleep in a Noguchi bed!" Dendy, who danced with Graham's junior company, recalled her making the remark at a news conference. The satire is affectionate. "Graham got him into modern dance," said Keigwin. "It's his first love, and your first love always stays with you."

On another occasion, looking out at the drag queens and the dancer Lisa Dalton, Dendy suddenly became a character from the movie "Valley of the Dolls," proclaiming, "There's only one star of a Helen Lawson production, and that's Helen Lawson, and that's me!"

The dark side of Dendy's tale and the intensity of his creative labor also took their toll. During rehearsal, the choreographer sometimes hung his head in his hands as if to say "What have I gotten myself into?", burdened as he was by the weight of combining so many plot elements and worrying whether they would be clearly understood in the mainstream lights of the Joyce. There was also the financial risk of mounting a season in New York City, even though this work received commissioning money from the Joyce and, eventually, Dance Theater Workshop.

And there was the personal risk. It is one thing to bare the soul of someone else, as Dendy has done in his drag roles, always behind a mask of sorts; it is something else to remove the mask. As Comfort observed: "Maybe by choosing such extreme women, Mark has been able to hide in his work. He is putting himself out there naked this time."

One afternoon, presiding over the two Nijinskys, the two Grahams, Garland, Merman, characters based on his aunt and mother, and his own driven and complicated psyche, Dendy confessed to his cast: "I'm having anxiety attacks like you wouldn't believe. I woke up at 3 in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep. All I could hear was Aunt Jessie and my mom saying, "I don't now why in the world you're doing this."

Post-script, 2002: How did it all come out? Reviewing the opening in the New York Times January 12, 1998, Jennifer Dunning wrote: "This year isn't even two weeks old, but it is hard to imagine the dance to come quite measuring up to the daring and accomplishment of the program presented by Mark Dendy Dance and Theater. . . ." To read the rest of Dunning's review, click here. Note: The NY Times requires readers to register to access its stories.

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