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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!)
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.
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.
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.
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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