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Arts Watch: Talking With Mark Dendy, Prepping to Premiere “Labyrinth” at Abrons

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Photo by Marisa @RockPaper. Labyrinth – Heather Christian and Mark Dendy, Matthew Hardy (background)

Throughout Mark Dendy’s career, he has steadily defied expectations to work in defined categories. He is a choreographer/director/writer/dancer/performer. Or, as he puts it, “I have been working in this way–going back and forth between pure dance and opera and theater, what I call hybrid genre-fuck, nightclub, drag theater, music and showbiz, all mixed into one hybrid, for years.”

I met Mark back in the 80’s when he was performing in East Village drag clubs—as the disturbingly funny televangelist transvestite, Sandy Sheets. His dance company performed regularly at PS 122, Dance Theater Workshop and other cutting edge downtown incubators of contemporary performance art.

The work took him around the country to prestigious dance festivals and led to many accolades and awards. As a performer, Mark was a riveting force to watch in other people’s work, including that of Jane Comfort, Pearl Lang and the Martha Graham Ensemble, to name a few.

He artistry brought him to Broadway where he choreographed numerous shows like Boy George’s Taboo, The Pirate Queen and The Wild Party, among others. He has created dances for prominent ballet companies and recently he premiered an epic, site-specific piece for 80 dancers for Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

Tonight, Mark is premiering his newest work, “Labyrinth,” at Abrons Arts Center. A full-length, autobiographically inspired dance play based on the Greek hero Theseus.

I spoke with Mark about the piece in between rehearsals earlier this week:

TLD: Labyrinth mixes character portraiture, myth, autobiography, and fantasy. What drives you to create such a compelling work?

Dendy: It is definitely a calling. Since I was in college. My work has matured over the years to having more social responsibility and political responsibility to it. Even when I was doing commercial work on Broadway, this was always present. The Pirate Queen was a feminist story about woman in the 1500s who took charge of her life. Taboo, the Boy George story–was the queer show at that time.

I stick close to my heart, following this thread–a deeper peeling of the onion. I am getting into the center of the onion on this one. Into a deep, dark subconscious. There is a lot of psychotherapy and archetypical work in Labyrinth.

TLD: Theseus is a mythic hero. Considered to be the founder of Athens. These myths are huge ideas. How does that connect to your life?

Dendy: I am dropping my life and experience of my life into a myth and seeing and where it settles. The Minotaur–the monster, the self. The dark parts in each of us. The dark parts in our lives that that monster has to be. I feel like it is time to tackle these things because so much as stake. One can’t fight the demons of the world until you fight your own demons.

We look back on history, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, the Suffragettes–people who did these major things that moved society forward. Now we are all on our cell phones and computers, thinking we cannot do anything about it. Do people take plastics bags home or, make changes to help the environment? What are we doing about these things?

This piece tries to address this through a story of a mid-life crisis. An artist is having a breakdown in Times Square, and then being taken off to Bellevue. He feels helpless in a world that is spinning out of control.

TLD: Has your work always had political themes?

Dendy: It has always been about self-realization as a queer. I focused on sexuality when I was younger. The work still has a queer face to it. I am always looking through a queer lens, but it also branches out to larger issues, social, economic and political as well. What is the queer psyche and mentality that is inspiring people to make change?

Labyrinth is a phantasmagorical play filled with fantasy and real world issues. Theseus is having his dreams interpreted. One is that his father is a virulent racist. We follow this character through the 70s, 80s and 90s, and watch how he is preaching hate speech in Theseus’s life early on. The homophobia father touches on the natural shadow the country has–the Tea Party racist feelings around the country that have manifested since Obama has become president.  The piece is trying to get people to act, to become empowered in an earth goddess, Sophie Tucker vaudeville kind of way.

TLD: You spent two years making this work? What was that process like?

Dendy: We worked in different situations, at theaters across the country, in residence at Fourth Arts Block. Now in residence at Abrons. We had readings where we worked back and forth on the script–it is set in New York City and Theseus is from Athens, Georgia. We started with 126 pages and cut to 64. The piece is two thirds text and devised theater, and one third dance and movement. The dances are a psychological embellishment of the plot–a deeper wordless exploration of the themes.

There was so much exploration and experimentation, which I cannot do when I work on Broadway and in regional theater. But my ability to work fast from those experiences helped here. It has been a labor of love for all involved, and a very tight collaboration. Everyone in the piece is playing a different part of the personality of Theseus. We also have beautiful music by Heather Christian, who will be playing live. It is all pretty exciting.

TLD: Is it important for you as an artist to tell a story? Is it a cleansing experience to tell about your own life or scary?

Dendy: Is its scary and redemptive, the ability of the self to be proactive. The journey has a lot of darkness in it. A lot of these things have come up. I am 53 and lot of my memories have come back through this work. The overbearing father, the abusive alcoholic home. The vigilance for being on guard. Being able to manipulate through it. I matured through it as an artist. The anger will kill you if you don’t come out on the either side of it. Be willing to let go of the anger and hurt is key.

TLD: Do you want your audience to be able to distinguish between fact and fantasy?

Dendy: My life is a catalyst for the creation of the work. But I want the audience to experience it as a piece of theater. I don’t want them necessarily to come hear my life story, but to experience the show as a piece of art, entertainment.

Labyrinth // October 9 – 26, 2014 // Abrons Arts Center //466 Grand Street // Tickets $25.

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