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


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.

Arts Watch: Dancer/Choreographer Lance Gries’ FIFTY Project @ La MaMa

K.J. Holmes, Lance Gries, Jonathan Kinzel, Jimena Paz, Jodi Melnick.

K.J. Holmes, Lance Gries, Jonathan Kinzel, Jimena Paz, Jodi Melnick.

Pivotal marks in life are always worth noting.  Former Trisha Brown dancer and Bessie-nominated choreographer Lance Gries has found an exceptional way to celebrate his 50th birthday. He invited fifty New York and European colleagues from his 25 year career to “meet him in a studio” and dance with him—for fifty minutes of course. Luckily, he recorded these encounters — and worked in collaboration with Mike Taylor on the design and editing of the video. The results? The FIFTY Project – a series of beautifully intimate dances on film; duets between Lance and some of the world’s most interesting and creative dance makers.

TLD Interveiw: Abrons New Director of Education, Robert La Fosse

Robert La Fosse.

Henry Street Settlement opened its doors this past weekend for a festive open house and introduction to their new Director of Education, esteemed dancer and choreographer Robert La Fosse. La Fosse was a long time Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, as well as the New York City Ballet. In addition to his work in classical ballet, La Fosse starred in Broadway productions of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor.

He will helm a program that offers more than 100 classes a year and has an annual enrollment of more than 500 students. He also is charged with the direction of the Abrons Dance Ensemble and Urban Youth Theater, as well as the Abrons’ extensive programs in New York City public schools. TLD Contributor Royal Young spoke with La Fosse at the open house.

A passionate piano player and full band were installed upstairs where golden afternoon sunlight poured in over drums, cello and violins. There was a silk screen station with Evelyn Donnelly offering free Abrons Arts Center shirts in multi-colored prints. Wine, juice and tea sandwiches were served.

Photo by Lee Brozgol.

Danspace Premieres New Work by Yvonne Rainer

Photo: Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 (2011) by Mathieu Malouf.

Renowned dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker, Yvonne Rainera seminal member of the highly influential avant-garde Judson Dance Theater of the 1960s, and improvisational dance collective Grand Union of the 1970s, brings three works to Danspace Project this week.  Performances will include a reconstruction of a Judson-era work, We Shall Run, (1963) and the premiere of her latest work, Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?

Trained as a dancer in New York at the Martha Graham Dance School and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Rainer began to choreograph her own work in 1960. Much like other choreographers of her era, she sought to blur the line separating dancers from non-dancers. Her performances were based on a series of mundane tasks and day-to-day gestures like walking, running, lifting, etc. Her work, and time at Judson, began the birth of a movement that proved to be a vital force in modern dance in the following decades.

A Few More Weekend Events

Photo by Tom Caravaglia

Local businesses are dusting themselves off and opening back up for the weekend.  Here are a few of the happenings:

  • Taylor 2, Paul Taylor’s internationally acclaimed dance troupe, is performing a free concert at Abrons Arts Center on Sunday at 3:00pm. The program features Taylor’s classics Airs and Company B. Doors open at 2:30 and seating is first come first served.
  • Gallerist James Fuentes’ latest show, ‘I’m Not Pregnant,’ a two-person exhibition featuring Lizzi Bougatsos and Thornton Dial, opens this evening with a reception from 6 – 8:00pm.
  • Experimental Cocktail Club on Chrystie Street has added live tunes to their environs. Tonight, DJ Maseo (De La Soul) is spinning.


TLD Interview: Principal Dancer Michael Trusnovec, Paul Taylor Dance Company

Michael Trusnovec, principal dancer for Paul Taylor Dance Company. Photo: Paul B. Goode

We spoke with Paul Taylor Dance Company’s Michael Trusnovec as he was preparing for the New York season at Lincoln Center. As a principal dancer for the company, Trusnovec moves gracefully, fully and with emotion, no matter the role. We discussed the company’s move in 2010 from its longtime headquarters in Soho to its brand new home on the Lower East Side at 552 Grand Street, as well as his own move into the neighborhood—an apartment in the Seward Park Co-ops.

TLD – You’re less than a week away from opening the company’s premier season at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. That must be very exciting and also very intense.

MT – A little bit intense!

TLD – For many years you performed at City Center. Are there any adjustments that you have to make as a dancer?

MT – The Lincoln Center season is new. It is a big change for us from City Center, but an exciting one. There are always new changes; we have new studios, we are touring constantly, going into new spaces. Dancers are quick to adjust on our feet. We also have a crew who goes in a few days before and makes the space feel familiar. The biggest difference is the audience relationship to the stage. City Center is more intimate. I am excited about having to really project.

Jody Oberfelder Examines the Heart With THROB

Photo by Travis Magee.

Choreographer Jody Oberfelder loves to stretch the boundaries of physicality in her work, often combining an array of highly athletic and expressive choreography with ample doses of humor and humanity. Her latest piece, THROB, comes to the Abrons Arts Center this weekend.  The piece is inspired by the biological workings of the heart, and grew out of conversations with cardiologist Dr. Holly Andersen about the science of  “our most fundamental organ.”

A Night of “Black Dance” With Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Leave it to choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar to jump-start one big spontaneous improv dance party during her “Black Jam” evening last night at Danspace Project (as part of the Platforms 2012: Parallels series). My iPhone camera could only capture a trace of the energy that was in the air, but when you gather a group of dancers together in a room — well, they dance.  Even the “old folks,” as Zollar affectionately called her fellow choreographers, joined in the act: Cynthia Oliver, Blondell Cummings, Bebe Miller–shedding her foot cast which became a welcome prop — not to mention Ishmael Houston-Jones, the mastermind curator behind this Platforms series.

Taylor 2 – Free Performance at Abrons Today

Taylor 2 "Company B - Rum and Coke" photo by by Tom Caravaglia

Paul Taylor’s Taylor 2 dance company will perform two classic pieces at Abrons Arts Center today.  They write: Taylor 2 will perform Funny Papers and Airs. “Airs” is part of Paul Taylor’s celebrated collection of dances set to baroque music. Although it tells no specific story, “Airs,” with music by Handel, is chock full of movement invention and comments upon relationships, romance and spirituality. “Funny Papers,” with choreography from several Taylor dances amended and combined by Mr. Taylor, is a series of comic vignettes inspired by “the funnies” and set to some of the most popular novelty tunes ever recorded.

There is no advance ticketing for this event. Seating is first-come, first-served.  FREE // Sunday, May 1 // 3pm // 466 Grand Street.

Weekend Arts – LES Highlights

The Artichoke Dance Company is currently at the University Settlement with Lynn Neuman’s “Recession Dances, and so can you!”. The performances draw
from dance styles of previous U.S. 20th Century recession eras, such as
the Lindy Hop (Great Depression) and Hustle (70’s oil crisis),
refashioned with humor and irony.

For twelve full hours of non-stop FREE music, head down to the World Financial Center Winter Garden at 220 Vesey Street on Sunday for the "Bang on a Can Marathon" Co-presented by the River to River Festival, the marathon's schedule includes an "incomparable eclectic super-mix of genre defying music" and has an almost legendary reputation. For the full schedule visit their site here.

LESB The jazz collaborative The Nu Band has released the album "Lower   East Side Blues" and received postitive reveiws here and here.