I‘m going to my room to be cool now, and I don’t want to be disturbed. That’s the name of Mark Dendy Dance and Theater’s evening-length work, which premiered June 26 at ADF. The fabulous title was rivaled only by a dance so fleshy, so unremitting, so proud of itself that it bordered on tacky. But wait: I mean that only in the best of senses.
Before I watched the piece, I knew it was going to be about coming-of-age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the music that was inextricably wrapped up in a moment of incredible social upheaval and artistic activity. Reading the program with its list of movements was itself a kind of musical remembering, and you know what I mean: Chaka Khan and Rufus, Ike and Tina Turner, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. In fact, at its simplest, Cool Now was just what I thought it might be: a superb indulgence of that super-real teenage fantasy where you make a dance to your most favorite of favorite songs and the crowd goes wild. But after a conversation with Dendy, I’m convinced something more nuanced, less easily said, was taking place.
“Summertime” opened the concert with gold, indigo and fuchsia. Dancing together through a series of resolute, wistful actions, the ensemble of seven reminded me of what it feels like to get carried away by or stuck inside an emotion. Verbs that come to mind are toil, luxuriate, grab, flick, spread, shake, nail it. Yet like a teenager who has access for one terrible moment to the world of both child and adult, a viewer of this dance had to entertain opposing realities: The ease and pleasure of watching it coexisted with a homesickness for an era of soul-glow, musically and otherwise. At one point ensemble member Ashley Gilbert found herself in such a place: feet flexed hard as she poured her weight easily across the glimmering torso of someone, anyone; there were several, all close, no particular faces, friends, lovers, would-be lovers.
Throughout the larger work, the relationship between soloist and ensemble was mutable, sensual and co-creative. In “Fire,” dancer Christalyn Wright performed a hip-hop/jazz aria with an earnestness that made its sharp edges feel soft. Lawrence Keigwin and Steven Ochoa were extensions of her badness, working hard to get her higher off the ground, faster around the turn, and in all ways magnify her defiant swagger and sashay. “Black Dog” was a solo Timothy Bish performed in a “pair” of red thong underpants. The spotlight followed him like a fifth appendage, an extension of the natural wonder that is the human form. He seemed to be watching himself be danced by his own, miraculously alien body. From the sounds in the audience, I guessed he wasn’t the only one fascinated.
During the duet “Tell Me Something Good,” the movement vocabulary–a hybrid of Dendy’s own and that of individual dancers–began to sing with new resonance. Dendy’s style is characterized by quadrupedal movement–all four limbs serve as arms and legs–crossed with center-seeking/center-fleeing waves, sparks and question marks. The camaraderie and the ecstasy of the men’s dancing may well have been that of best friends or lovers, so clear was the joy inherent in interpreting Chaka Khan’s song. The choreography held hands with the music, sometimes moving in absolute unison, other times stealing focus, other times giving it, but always in a relationship of mutual admiration.
In a conversation with Dendy, I asked him to identify the ideas of pleasure, desire and survival in his work. Cool Now appeared to be all about pleasure, and watching it was, too. But desire and survival are more dangerous threads to trace, especially since the piece makes present a time when dance seemed like a possible vocation. Bear in mind, also, that Dendy is himself one of a privileged handful in the field who are actually using money as a currency. The economy is relatively good right now for an artist who is willing and able to lubricate the joint between “concert” and “commercial” performance. The Martha Graham Company, on the other hand, has been suspended due to bankruptcy, and their absence cast a shadow on ADF this year. Underneath the skin of Dendy’s piece, at least for me, was a question I’m a little uncomfortable asking: Is commercialism the way to survive as a dance artist? What then?
The Independent:What was the role of pleasure in making Cool Now?
Mark Dendy: There were a couple of pleasures. One was that we had everyone on a pretty well-paying payroll for 10 weeks to make the work because of the Doris Duke commission. So that was a luxury in that there was time to make the piece. And it was pleasurable to work together because there wasn’t the pressure, and the usual total shortage of money, so that we worked for six hours, five days a week and, really, just loved each other. And had a ball. And made it together, with me more as the director. You know, Martha Graham said that with art there is this “divine dissatisfaction,” and for me this time, I was finally satisfied.
Where did your original inspiration come from?
I remember the first time I heard “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” Somebody was in the front seat with my mother; I was in the back seat, peering over. That song came on, and I knew that I was what he was talking about. That that was the side I walked on. And it was this warm feeling. I felt for the first time there was a place I belonged. It was New York City. And I must have been in fourth or fifth grade. This music is a coming-of-age music, and it’s very much what separates our generation from the generation before us. Not only does it represent that, but it was a catalyst in that, so it’s intertwined in it, it’s not just “this reflects the period.” It is the period. It pushed the period.
The first time I heard that Rufus song, we were driving down the street, I was in second grade, it was Richmond, Va., and we had just moved from Weaverville, N.C. The campus was crawling with hippies. And [when] we looked out the windows at all these people while the music was playing on the radio, you can just see my mother’s insides were like, “I’m gonna lose them to this because we’re here.”
What is your wildest dream for your dance, now that you’ve created it? What is it doing now?
One thing I’ve seen it do twice is give people this wonderful sense of nostalgia. But also, a girlfriend of mine’s boyfriend said, ” I didn’t know I would enjoy watching men dance together sexually so much, but I did,” you know, and he’s not gay. But he enjoyed seeing it. You know what I mean? It made someone a little less phobic. And one of the ideas behind the work was to make something that was popular, accessible and pushing the limits at the same time. So we could go out and make some money and get the dancers some extra work in that way–so that we can stay together.
How do you think the “popular” and the “commercial” might remain open to artists with other visions?
It’s suitable to some people, and to others it’s not. Martha [Graham] would never do it. I think it was a little bit because of fear, and a little bit out of principle that she had to call all the shots; it had to be her vision and her story. She played Broadway, but she played it with her company. There were a few years there where she had a regular Broadway season. I’m pretty sure it almost always lost money.
What can dance do at this point to survive?
The commercial is good, that branching out is good, community is good. Partnerships with commercial things are good. I’m looking into something where you have a building, and upstairs you’ve got studios, maybe apartments for your dancers, and on the ground floor, you paid for it. You’ve got your Starbucks, a magazine store and a movie theater, and then you coexist. People are making money, the rent is paid and the arts are supported. So everybody’s winning. That’s the kind of thing that I’m looking to get going.
Your work in the past has asked: “Where does the dance take place?” How are you asking that question now?
This piece, if anything, comes out of the audience. You might have noticed when you walked into the theater that the curtain was open at the beginning. It’s a subtle difference in that our space and where we are is common space. It’s connected to your space and we’re not going to separate it with a wall and say we’re the entertainers and you’re the kings and queens and peasants. It’s more about community to me. We relay that to the audience, we try to work deeply from our souls. We think of ourselves as kind of primitive shamans for the tribe. We go back to that model in all of our dances, so that we really emphasize that they’re rituals. At their base level, they’re rituals.