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Flash Review 2, 2-28: Broadway Dance Un-shrunk
Dendy Makes Broadway Dance Bigger

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

In my last (Flash Review 1, 2-28: Squonk Shrunk), I referenced "Rent" and "The Lion King." If "Rent" championed the Boho lifestyle, it didn't really herald dance from the same geography. Marlies Yearby did fine with what she was given, but there's the rub: As revolutionary as "Rent" was in its milieu, it was pretty conventional in its limited use of dance. As for "The Lion King," the success of Garth Fagan there inspired Broadway producers to want, at least, to look beyond the usual suspects for their choreography. That's one reason why in February 1998, I found myself sitting in a studio next to Moses Pendleton, as the Momix director and Pilobolus co-founder auditioned dancers and circus performers for a workshop of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," directed by James Lapine. But though Broadway's intentions may have been good, Pendleton soon found that in actuality, it was not ready to truly welcome--and integrate--dance that was really different from the Fosse standard. What a difference two years make! It is ready now, based on what I saw Sunday night in "The Wild Party" at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where Mark Dendy's peculiar choreographic vision set the very tone for the whole production and exceeded, in originality, the lyrics.

The book for "The Wild Party," based on a Jazz Age poem by Joseph Moncure March, is basically a love quadrangle which plays itself out in an all-night bacchanalia. It is largely sex-driven. In this respect, the producers could not have found a better match than Dendy, who is not timid when it comes to dancing sex. They hired Dendy after seeing his "Dream Analysis" at the Joyce Theater's 1998 Altogether Different festival. (And by the way, the Joyce took a risk in booking this dance play, on its face a recipe for failure trying to tie together two Martha Graham figures, two Vaslav Nijinskys, a Judy Garland drag queen, his rage-a-holic mother, a psychologist portrayed by a real live Ethel Merman/Ernest Borgnine drag queen, and two megalomaniac modern dance teachers. It turned out a raging success!)

When "Dream Analysis" was reprised at Dance Theater Workshop in the fall of 1998, I took a friend of mine who happened to be a Seventh-Day Adventist. When the rage-a-holic mother led a rather explicit exorcism of the real life Ethel Merman drag queen, my friend turned to me and said softly, "I'm not really comfortable here." When one of the Nijinskys went down on the Judy Garland drag queen, my friend announced, "I'm going to leave," and did. I made a note to self: Don't invite Seventh-Day Adventist friend to Mark Dendy dance plays.

However, I suspect that when the producers of "The Wild Party" saw Dendy's work, they made a different note to themselves: He was the perfect candidate to create an untimid choreography for this ribald work. Dendy didn't disappoint. There's not a subtle way to convey the sex at the core of this play, and Dendy isn't subtle. In the final orgy scene, men go down on men, men go down on women, near-naked men embrace near-naked men, and an older Lesbian beds down in the bathtub with an under-aged flapper. But any director could think of this, and what makes Dendy more than licentious is that the luridness is contained in genuine ballets--and I do mean, BALLETS. In his musicality, Dendy owes more to Balanchine than Graham, for whom he danced. He also has a gift for playing with time, used most beautifully when, as a silent chorus reflecting the mood of the gamesmanship between the four main characters, they react to and echo the action in slow-motion. And the group patterns Dendy composes are not traditional, either; chorus lines are used sparingly, if at all. The kicks come from the ballet book. My companion remarked that it was amazing nobody hit each other in such a small space. I'd add that the variety of ways Dendy deployed his corps was also amazing in such confines. And always, their spirited movements as much as their singing conveyed complex reactions to the many travails of the heroes.

Leading this corps--in spirit and virtuosity--was Lawrence Keigwin, Dendy's right-hand man. Keigwin provides the quiet before the storm of the penultimate confrontation in an exquisite solo. Rising from the coupled, sleeping bodies splayed around him, he tip-toes to an old fashioned Victrola, winds it up, and then performs a balletic solo to an elegiac musical interlude. My friend described it best: He makes sure to touch just about everything in the room as he makes its circumference. The most athletic and lyrical moment comes when he does a handstand on the edge of the bathtub, his legs slowly cycling in the air.

I don't want you to think Dendy's gifts are limited to depicting the sexual. Similar to other effective Broadway choreographers, he also has a gift for giving the non-dancers movement appropriate for their characters and their real skills. This is touchingly displayed in a duet between a boxer and his much shorter girlfriend.

Another example of how Dendy has been allowed to fully integrate his aesthetic: Often-times on Broadway, we'll see a separation between the dancer corps and the acting stars, who aren't allowed elaborate choreography. But Dendy goes to town with Taye Diggs, who, as the mysterious and chivalrous Black, challenges Burrs for the affection of his wife Queeny. This actor can dance, and Dendy gives him the phrases to display that ability.

Dendy's choreography, Diggs's acting, the no-holds barred performance of his fellow original "Rent" cast alum Idina Menzel, and, in general, the dancing recommend "The Wild Party." Unfortunately, the book and lyrics in general are not at the same high level as Dendy's achievement, especially the relatively mundane, par-for-the-course second act.

I saw a staging of "The Wild Party" back in 1995 or 1996. In that case, the book and lyrics were entirely made up of just March's over-the-top colorful, singing poem, if memory serves. As such, it really re-created a period. Through no fault of the actors, this "Wild Party" is unfortunately one of those musicals where there's often a disjunction between the true wildness of the subject--and Dendy's choreography--and Andrew Lippa's run-of-the-mill book, music, and lyrics. I saw this for free, but at $60 a pop ($20 student rush), I'd say you'd have to be a Dendy or Diggs groupie--or a choreographer interested in the main topic I've been discussing--to make this worth your while.


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