MARK DENDY by Suzanne Carbonneau
From his earliest days as a choreographer, Mark Dendy has addressed the idea of gender and sexual stereotypes in his work. While still a student, he choreographed Wave (1983), in which men wearing lovely white dresses danced with a lyricism that had heretofore been the province of American girlhood. A rebellion against the sexual politics of the traditional modern dance in which he had trained and of which he was an otherwise passionate devotee, the dance did in fact demonstrate that male physique and movement could be stunningly abetted by “female” clothing and movement. To be able to make such a radical transposition appear so natural would be an extraordinary accomplishment for the most experienced of choreographers; for a neophyte, it seemed close to miraculous. Wave was a sensation, drawing attention to Dendy’s prodigious gifts, not only as an inventor of movement, but as someone who had important things to say about the world.
After the transvestism of Wave, Dendy looked at the idea of sexual identity in his work from a perspective of erasing gender distinctions. Choreography from the ‘80s, including Rock (1981), Face (1981), Beat (1985), and Tide (1985) aimed toward a studied neutralizing of gender, as he dressed men and women in the same (often topless) costumes and asked them to perform androgynous, high-intensity movement. More recent works such as Busride to Heaven (1993), Dream Analysis (1998), and Bible Stories (2000) have abandoned gender-blindness and substituted gender-subversion. Calling himself a “gender illusionist,” Dendy has created theatrical portraiture in a variety of venues over the last decade that declare gender to be a costume—something that we can either learn to put on as a disguise, or that we can use to create a more authentic sense of what gender feels like.
Dendy found support for his intuitive understanding of gender as a social construct in his reading of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, which provocatively begins, “There can be no culture without the transvestite,” and of Mark Thompson’s Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, which redefines being gay as a spiritual as well as a sexual condition. Creating drag characters as mouthpieces and models, Dendy turned to female impersonation to make these same claims theatrically. Sandy Sheets, the transvestite televangelist who preaches fire and brimstone against homophobics, is Dendy’s drag-club alter ego. ( In a mirrored hall of impersonations, Dendy, as Sheets, quotes Mae West giving advice to Martha Graham: “I don’t see any reason that men shouldn’t dress up like women. After all, women have been doing it for years.”) He also has portrayed Amanda Wingfield in Faith Healing, Jane Comfort’s acclaimed danced-theater deconstruction of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie; Mavis, the alcoholic mother of a lesbian in his own Fire (1993); Pawnie, a drug-addicted transvestite prostitute, and Mee-Maw, a 70-year-old who kills her rapist, both in the performance tour de force Busride to Heaven; and his own Jewish-turned-Protestant-preacher’s-wife grandmother in Bible Stories. But it was with Dream Analysis that Dendy made this concept explicitly autobiographical. Enlisting the spirit of the iconic Martha Graham in mirrored impersonations by himself and Richard Move, Dendy brilliantly charted the struggle to accept himself as gay in a piece of dance-theater that is as allusionistic as it is illusionistic.
Dendy identifies modern dance pioneer Martha Graham as the first drag queen he ever saw, pointing out that the definitive portrait of theatrical life she created in the 1957 documentary film A Dancer’s World begins with the ritual of the makeup table. In significant ways, Graham has been the matriarch and guru whose love he has sought and whose embrace he has fought against throughout his career. Dendy seems not to imitate Graham so much as to channel her. His eerie portrayals of Graham extend from casual conversation (it is difficult to get through a discussion with Dendy without his quoting her—complete with voice and mannerisms) to making her a central character in his dances and other public performances. Recognizing the simultaneous sincerity and studied theatricality of her image, Dendy has revered Graham for her understanding of drama and of the sacredness of performance, as well as for her acknowledgment of theatrical personae as constituting a constructed self. (At the same time, he also acknowledges Graham as a font of much abuse in the dance world. “I’m the type of person who needs to know why someone is mistreating me,” he says in partial explanation of his intensive study of Grahamiana.) Nevertheless, in his observations of the ways that Graham created an exaggerated feminine persona in order to stake her claim as modern dance’s high priestess, Dendy realized that representation could be constructed from inside as well as outside the gender in question.
Gender illusion is part of a larger idea that is present in Dendy’s work: his struggle to accept and love himself as a gay man. As a child in a Christian fundamentalist household in the mountains of North Carolina, Dendy says that he was taught to believe that homosexuality was evil long before he even knew that he was gay. Simultaneously, however, he was also instructed that he should listen for his calling, and that when he received it, he would have found his purpose in life. This calling, of course, was meant to be that of witness to the fundamentalist God, but Dendy confounded these expectations by answering instead the spiritual spark struck in him by art, which he has recognized as his true savior. So, while Dendy has become a missionary with his own pulpit, he is decidedly not preaching the gospel his family intended. Instead, his church is the theater, and the members of his congregation are the victims of homophobia. Dendy declares his higher calling as an artist, testifying that “I feel that I have a mission to empower gay men in America who are the products of a homophobic culture, and to bring straight people into a more loving relationship with their gay brothers and sisters.”
When Dendy was coming of age in the ‘seventies, dance was still largely closeted, but he found that he could go back in history for gay references and role models. It was the great expatriate Russian ballerina Alexandra Danilova who told Dendy to look to the phenomenal dancer and revolutionary choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky as the source of modern dance. In reading about Nijinsky and his lover and mentor Serge Diaghilev, Dendy stumbled upon the world that he had been looking for—a community of gay artists who changed the world through their aesthetic vision. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1909-1929) was the first manifestation of a dance enterprise that consciously situated itself as the avant-garde, producing ballets within the modernist parameters of impressionism, symbolism, cubism, constructivism, futurism, surrealism, and neoclassicism. At a time when homosexuality was still criminalized, Diaghilev was openly gay, and his company was a haven for other gay artists and aesthetes, including Léon Bakst, Maurice Ravel, Jean Cocteau, Francis Poulenc, Anton Dolin, Serge Lifar, Boris Kochno, Igor Markevitch, and Baron Dmitri Gunzburg. Dendy realized that, in conquering the art world, Nijinsky and Diaghilev provided an alternative version to the heterocentric history he had been taught, and along with it, the model to reconstruct his own place in the world.
Not since the late Robert Joffrey has an American choreographer devoted himself so thoroughly to the Diaghilev repertory as has Dendy. Whereas Joffrey presented authentic reconstructions of Diaghilev productions, Dendy has chosen another tack in using the Ballets Russes repertory as a source of inspiration and raw materials for his own postmodern referential re-creations. Dendy has honored Nijinsky as a gay hero, recognizing in his triumphant and tragic story the classic paradigm of the visionary artist/homosexual who is misunderstood by the philistines around him, and is driven to madness as a result. Nijinsky’s autoeroticism in L’Après-Midi d’un Faune (1912), his toying with sexual identity in Jeux (1913), and his deliberate refutation of ballet in Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) branded him a sexual and aesthetic deviant. In what is both tribute and a post-Stonewall opening of historical closet doors, Dendy’s Afternoon of the Faunes (1996) reconceives Nijinsky’s Faune as a lusty and playful duet, dispensing with the nymphs to turn the Faun’s desires toward his own kind. Likewise, in Dream Analysis, Dendy conjures other Nijinsky roles (Le Spectre de la Rose) and ballets (Sacre) to re-create them for a contemporary sensibility that is unfettered by sexual taboos.
Nijinsky’s sister, the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, has also provided Dendy with fodder for his creative imagination. Nijinska herself was a drag performer: In addition to dancing her brother’s role in Faune after his descent into schizophrenia, she performed other male roles she created for herself, and she also took to wearing tuxedos offstage. As the third in a continuing series of works that he has created for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dendy chose to make his own version of Les Biches, which Nijinska had originally choreographed for Diaghilev in 1924. Nijinska was just as interested in gender redefinition as her brother had been, and her Les Biches held immediate appeal for Dendy, what with the ambiguous gender of its central characters (the Hostess and the Garçonne), and its portrayal of the first openly homosexual relationship on the concert dance stage. The untranslatable title of the work (called The House Party in English) refers to the Smart Set, those privileged young hedonists who took full advantage of the liberation offered by the Jazz Age. Dendy declares himself fascinated by the libertinism of the ‘twenties, and a very similar orgiastic milieu was the setting for The Wild Party (1999), the musical based on the famous poem by Joseph Moncure March he choreographed at the Manhattan Theater Club.
But there is yet another reason that Dendy is indebted to Diaghilev, for it is the Russian impresario who created the notion of a ballet as a Gesamtkuntswerk (syntheis of the arts). This Wagnerian ideal of the arts as working in unity to create a coherent theatrical expression is also a concept that has motivated Dendy’s creations over the last decade. In incorporating text and acting in his pieces, Dendy has gone Diaghilev one better in creating an integrative movement-based theater with such works as Fire, Busride to Heaven, Dream Analysis and Bible Stories. And even those works that don’t use text, such as I’m Going to My Room to Be Cool Now and I Don’t Want to Be Disturbed (2000), often have an unspoken script underpinning the narrative.
In all of these legacies, Dendy has found himself an heir to dancing made by forebears who courageously put forward more expansive notions of gender and sexuality. Following their example, Dendy seeks to create an enlightened future for dance and for the culture at large by propagating messages of liberation and tolerance in his artmaking. Passing on the lessons learned on the journey to his own hard-won freedom, Dendy sees a life in the theater as one of responsibility to the community—past, present, and future. “The connection to history is what makes you stay with dance,” Dendy passionately declares. “You don’t want to let those people down. You don’t want to abandon the legacy they have entrusted you with.”
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2000