In the late 1990s, a group of young dancers with a proclivity for the theatrical blazed through the Manhattan club scene, leaving a trail of pomp and glitter wherever their provocative work debuted. They called themselves the Dazzle Dancers, and their gender bending, make art/not war agenda reigned supreme over the nightlife glitterati. Their risqué costumes, an explosion of barely-there lamé and paillettes stretched tightly across painted bodies, were the genius conceptions of a costume designer who was known among the downtown set as Machine Dazzle. And one night, in a glorious haze of falsies and feathers, over the untz untz soundtrack of a thumping techno beat, Dazzle came face to face with a kindred spirit, a self-described “theatre artist in the genre of pastiche,” and a beautiful friendship emerged.
The artist was Taylor Mac, a California bon vivant who left the warm confines of a Stockton, California, upbringing to pursue acting at New York City’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Together, Mac and Dazzle began an artistic alliance that has spanned more than seven years, with Dazzle adding visual splendor to Mac’s brilliantly satirical study of the human condition. “Taylor is a dream to work with,” enthused Dazzle in a recent phone interview with The Indy. “I feel like I’m probably the envy of every costume designer, anyone would kill to have projects like these.” Their first collaboration, a vibrant series of meticulously designed flower costumes for Mac’s poignant piece about the dangers of nostalgia titled “The Lily’s Revenge,” won Mac a much-coveted Obie award, and sent the pair catapulting toward stardom. “I’m really lucky to work inside this really special relationship,” stressed Dazzle. “Taylor gives me the story, but trusts my direction, so I get to create these little concepts and sub-plots that are actually separate from what Taylor is doing.”
Their artistic alliance, steeped in a deep trust that allows for each one to clearly define their vision, has been put to the test with their latest creative endeavor, an ambitious theatrical splendor where “mythology meets melody” entitled “A 24 Decade History of Popular Music.” With a 24-piece band, 24 distinctive costume changes, and one hour of song and historical reflection for each of the 24 decades from 1776-2016, Mac’s ambitious 24-hour musical revue has all the makings of a legendary affair, a Lollapalooza of sorts for the musical theater world.
Segments of the revue are already snaking their way around the U.S., and next week, thanks to the UCSB Arts & Lectures Series, Santa Barbara will lay witness to “Act V,” a two-hour camp fest highlighting the musings and music from 1906-1926. “It’s been a very interesting history lesson,” said Dazzle. “I researched the fashion and culture for each decade, condensed it all down to one page, and then started to have visions of what materials to pair with my ideas. Can you imagine what Taylor did with his ideas?” The two costumes being shipped out for the occasion are entitled World War I and The Speak Easy — think “suffragette with a military twist” for the former, and “deranged, extroverted flapper” for the latter, adding visual context to what is sure to be a brilliant, engaging depiction of the “queer narrative that didn’t really exist in our history books.” When asked about the daunting task of taking on such an expansive chronological project, Dazzle doesn’t miss a beat. “I do the best I can. Perfection is for assholes.”
Mac and Dazzle, with their maximalist approach to the world of performance art, make no apologies for their intention to provoke, a deliberate push back against the homogenization of our large-scale theaters’ preoccupation with art as a commodity. In a soothing voice, Mac reassures his audience, “In a performance art concert, you can be disturbed, annoyed, you can hate every single moment, you can hate me, you can hate the entire experience, and I still will have succeeded.”
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1906-1926” on Tuesday, March 8, 8 p.m., UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For tickets, call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.