Mark Dendy’s “Dystopian Distractions!” was the most thought-provoking entry. In an Army uniform and a gas mask, he sat on a stool and gesticulated to the sound of Donald Rumsfeld being interviewed on C-SPAN. The segment was intriguing: an anecdote about the time that Sammy Davis Jr. introduced Mr. Rumsfeld to Elvis Presley in Las Vegas, and all Elvis wanted to talk about was the Army. Mr. Dendy’s hunched body language was Nixonian, yet it caught some of Mr. Rumsfeld’s creepy gregariousness, and the mask made the solo more ambiguous than a strict impersonation.
Photo by Patrick MacLeod
“A variety show mash-up of dance, spoken word, physical theater, music, and stage design, Dystopian Distractions! is Dendy’s dazzling and courageous commentary on America. It’s a wild, satirical romp through the wasteland of popular culture and modern warfare — subjects that could easily lead to a heavy-handed slog. Instead, Dendy achieves a rare and heady blend of high entertainment and smart social criticism.” Elizabeth Scwyzer, SANTA BARBARA INDEPENDENT
UNPRECEDENTED ARTISTIC FREEDOM is the idea behind DANCEworks, an annual month-long hosting of cutting edge American contemporary dance companies and choreographers at the Lobero Theatre each spring. In return for exceptional daily access to the Lobero’s stage for rehearsals, and no restrictions of any kind on subject matter, the company in residence each year is commissioned to create and premiere a new work of dance art by the end of their residency. Another important codicil, which has helped make these residencies so successful, citizens of the host community are allowed to participate in the process, and are incorporated into each new piece. This year, New York City’s enfant fantastique of performance dance art, choreographer Mark Dendy and his company, Mark Dendy Projects, were DANCEworks guests. The fruit of Dendy’s month in Santa Barbara,Dystopian Distractions! was premiered last Saturday at the Lobero Theatre, and will receive its New York City debut in September. A decidedly personal work, the choreographer himself played the wildly satirical narrative role of General, leading the audience, sometimes by the throat, through a litany of verbal and visual shock and awe parodies that were both droll and breathtaking. Clearly the distillation of years of serious observation by the heartland-born, gay American choreographer, Dystopian Distractions!focused a laser eye on several sensitive homeland issues like zenophobia, extreme violence, white noise, and culture kitsch. Dendy’s disturbing American Frankenstein, a mash up of Elvis and Dr. Strangelove, was at once familiar, and terrifying. Leaving the Lobero stage exposed, its bare, black back wall transparent throughout the evening, created a disarming psychological sense of total transparency. Oddments like ladders, stationary bicycles, video clips, melting ice mounds, bodies, and other ephemera discreetly populated the stage, even as the audience was settling in: a visual stripping away of pretense that presaged a quiet before the soon to breach, dystopian storm. Dendy, suited up in military cliché, emerged suddenly, in bright spotlight, to announce the lesson had begun, and with the help of Stephen Donovan’s extraordinary soundscape, video, and costumes Dendy’s three-ring circus of American dysfunction launched, like a Vandenberg missile.An intriguing cacophony of sounds, theater, oratory, and not a little dance, Dendy’s Distractions were presented in scene after original scene, 14 mini-vignettes in the first section of the piece, eight more after intermission. His issues, at least those this observer could catch in the giddy fray, centered on the unconscious aspects of American culture that make us both popular in the world and reviled. Dendy’s choreography was not inconsequential, his dancers observing and commenting on the theatrics and visual frenzies around them in superbly organized and original duos, trios, quartets, and ensembles. Members of the community added their carefully orchestrated busyness to various scenes as well. Visual imagery was plentiful and lingered in memory: a block of ice melting into a fish tank, drop by drop; white noise, visual and aural, suggesting the crazed pace and often somnambulant nature of modern American life; a piece of theater about our slavish submission to media propaganda and jingoism; a lone bicyclist, pedaling nowhere. In short, the good, the bad, and the downright mundane angsts of our culture, mercilessly illuminated. But while pointing out these many troubling aspects of post-modern American culture, Dendy has also created a work of great optimism. We gave the world Elvis Presley after all, Dendy reminds us fondly, with a wink. And in his poignant last visual image of Dystopian Distractions - a recreation of the iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph from World War II – Dendy softens his lense a bit, and recollects that once upon a time, Americans saved the world from totalitarianism.
Photos by David Bazemore