Raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in North Carolina, he’s now a New York–based artist making boundary-pushing performance pieces. Simultaneously masculine and effeminate, an entertainer and an intellectual, Mark Dendy has made an art of defying categorization.
At the same time, the former Martha Graham dancer has immersed himself in many worlds, from drag shows to illustrious opera companies, experimental site-specific works to commercial Broadway productions. This weekend, the curtain goes up on Dendy’s latest creation: Dystopian Distractions!, a wild romp through politics and pop culture — and it’s happening here in Santa Barbara.
The world premiere marks the culmination of this year’s DANCEworks residency. A partnership between SUMMERDANCE Santa Barbara and the Lobero Theatre Foundation now in its sixth year, DANCEworks gives emerging and established dance makers a full month on the Lobero stage to experiment and create new work — with no stipulation as to what that work must look like when it’s performed at month’s end.
It’s an unprecedented opportunity in an increasingly manic performing-arts landscape where choreographers often get less than half that time to build a piece and rarely get access to the stage until the day of the show. But what makes this an especially precious residency for Dendy is the permission he feels to pursue politically charged, controversial material without fear of censorship.
Sitting with me in a Santa Barbara dance studio at the start of his residency, Dendy emphasized the significance of that artistic license. Having spent six years working in what he calls “the fishbowl” of Broadway musical theater, where directors and producers scrutinized his every decision, he’s especially grateful to DANCEworks director Dianne Vapnek for her implicit trust and hands-off approach.
“She gives me a lot of freedom and no conditions,” he said. Having such trust has been crucial for the creation of Dystopian Distractions!, a satirical antiwar work that would have been impossible to make, say, on Broadway.
“Who’s making antiwar stuff right now?” Dendy challenged, only to answer his own question: “Nobody.”
Referencing German choreographer Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, a ballet choreographed in 1932 in response to the perceived futility of war-cabinet negotiations, Dendy noted that few companies are even performing that masterpiece these days, let alone commissioning new works of its kind.
At the same time that Dendy’s powerful convictions and frustrations suffuse this work, Dystopian Distractions! is shaping up to be an evening filled with comedy and levity, albeit of the darker variety. In rehearsal last week, four company members marked through a section of the dance they’ve dubbed “Elvis Heaven.” One by one, they struck poses with an invisible microphone, tottered across the stage like drunk rock stars trying to hold it together, and shimmied their way between life-size cardboard cutouts of the King. Just a peek at the rehearsal process made it clear that Dendy admires the very same culture he satirizes. With Dystopian Distractions!, he strikes a delicate balance between lampooning and vilifying symbols of modern American society, from former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld (a role Dendy himself will play) to infamous child beauty-pageant contestant Honey Boo Boo.
“You can’t make didactic theater unless you’re going to be entertaining,” he noted as we spoke, citing that line’s originator — German playwright Bertolt Brecht — among his inspirations.
As in years past, 2014’s DANCEworks residency has included an education-outreach component, but unlike prior artists, Dendy has decided against creating a specific work for Santa Barbarans, instead integrating dancers and nondancers from the community into the main work he’ll be presenting. A select group of Santa Barbara adults, teens, and children have taken part in rehearsals with the choreographer and his professional company and will appear in sections throughout the final production this Saturday.
All those involved in the process have been informed that Dendy’s pulling no punches in criticizing U.S. military power and foreign policy. Visitors to the Lobero’s website will find a short description of Dystopian Distractions!, followed by an asterisk and a note alerting potential audience members of the production’s antiwar sentiment, irreverent tone, and possible sexual references, and advising parental discretion. Consider yourself warned.
One fact I might not have known, had I not asked, is that for Dendy, the brutal legacy of war has personal as well as ideological significance.
“My father was a guard on the piers in Japan during World War II,” he explained. “At the very end, when the kamikaze were blowing themselves up, he had to walk the piers alone during the graveyard shift. He was terrified; he had to drink a lot of sake to get through it.” He spoke, too, of an uncle who served. “He was never the same after he came back,” Dendy said. “Eventually, he shot himself.” But Dendy didn’t linger long on family biography, moving instead to broader observations.
“War affects a man; he becomes a father; it affects his children, and the children’s children, and the relationships those children have,” he said.
Though Dystopian Distractions! makes his stance on warfare clear, Dendy said he’s “not under any illusion that this piece will stop war.”
“I hope that it will do what other works of art have done for me, which is to inspire. I’m not trying to change the opposition; I’m hoping to inspire the choir.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given permission to take whatever creative risks feel right, Dendy finds himself returning to some of the conventions of show business, finally free to blend the glitz and sparkle of that world with the darker, harder edge of his political discontent. So far, he noted, he seems to be getting away with it.
“They may come and take me away in the night,” he said.
I’m pretty sure he meant it as a joke.
DANCEworks 2014 presents Mark Dendy Dance and Theater Projects in the world premiere of Dystopian Distractions! at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, April 26, at 8 p.m. Dance critic Rachel Howard will give a free pre-show talk to ticket holders at 7:15 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info. To learn more about DANCEworks, visit sbdanceworks.com.