Playful Rebellion in the Era of Trump: the absurd, comic dance-theater of AJnC’s Young Manic/I Wanted to be on Broadway

 All photos by Jazzy Photo

All photos by Jazzy Photo

 

Americans live in dangerous, ugly, and traumatic times. This is a new experience for some. For others—like my black and Jewish forebears—it is not. To survive centuries of dispossession and abuse, we developed major tools, including laughter.  Jewish and black comic traditions are quite different, but they share an understanding that laughter creates social connection, energizes, feeds imagination and wits. The medical world has been awaking to the health properties of laughter too. Indian physician Mudan Kutaria established “Laughter Yoga” back in 1995, and Seattle’s own Harborview Medical Center had instituted a Laughter Club by 2008. Research suggests that laughter boosts immunity, lowers blood pressure, and reduces pain. It’s not surprising then that Trump’s election has provoked something of a comedy backlash. Seattle’s recent Intersections comedy festival is a local example. (See  http://www.deconstructcollective.com/performancecritique/#/intersectionskickoff/). So, too, is AJnC’s Young Manic/I Wanted to be on Broadway. (See http://amyjlambert.com/aboutajnc/). This is a brilliant, beautifully performed, laugh-out-loud production, of, in AJnC’s words, "Cunningham-style modern dance, a few show tunes, and a glitzy light installation".  It’s a clever and original blend of dance and theater that will appeal to audiences across the disciplinary divide. Using a vaudeville format, the show’s two actors and ten dancers move through a series of scenes where they perform, rehearse, compete, complain, reflect, and have fun. Young Manic successfully creates both an entertaining comedy and a sustained reflection on the role of comic performance art in our time.

To create the work, AJnC Director and choreographer Amy Lambert had to conquer her inner sceptic: “I almost didn’t make this show. I was overwhelmed by the complexities and injustice of our world. I felt small against big problems”, she explains. Fortunately for us all, after asking “what good is dance when it sometimes feels like the end of the world?” Lambert resisted the lure of negativity: “in a time when nothing feels funny anymore, making comedy is my personal rebellion” (quoted from “The Things That Matter in Life (Are Useless)): http://velocitydancecenter.org/stance/the-things-that-matter-in-life-are-useless/). AJnC’s mission, more broadly, is to “use humor and wit to explore themes of rebellion, conformity, and the absurdity of modern life”. Its first full-length production, Believe Me or Not, opened in 2015 to packed houses.

Young Manic’s central conceit is a set of performers who dreamed, as children, of becoming successful Broadway performers. The show exploits the gap between childhood dream and adult reality as comic ammunition. At the same time, Lambert questions the dualistic thinking on which that gap is based. The show effectively closes the gap, giving us  both a wish fulfilment and a gentle critique  of  the dismal conditions under which professional performers operate. (This country depends on the performing arts, as a huge revenue supply, yet generally treats artists like dirt; such is the logic of capitalism). You can be an adult and enjoy yourself too, the show ultimately suggests; it’s not inevitable that maturity breeds pessimism, that earning a living means alienation. AJnC presents its art as the triumph of humorous, playful fun, that uses absurdity to seamlessly blend physical, visual and verbal expression. Such playfulness keeps aspirations and creativity alive. Those childhood Broadway dreams (or their equivalent) may be the key to building an alternative future, getting us out of the depressing era we inhabit. If you know funk cosmology, think Starchild (an avatar of George Clinton), self-designated “Protector of the Pleasure Principle”, who wields his flashlight to blast negativity from the house. In this show, Lambert accomplishes something similar, zapping us with humor. We have no choice but to surrender, laughing helplessly.

The work is not an overt attack on Trump’s government, nor a direct cry for social justice and greater political mobilization. It’s more subtle. In one scene, the actress Taryn Collis channels Lambert’s own doubts about art’s social effectivity. Having reeled off a long list of internationally impactful, and renowned, activists, she laments, to her stage partner, “Josh [Joshua Williamson], our dance isn’t going to change the world”. To which he responds, “Well, it’s changed my life”.  The show validates his view: small-scale change is still change. It’s not only the micro that’s defended; it’s also the right to exercise transgressive imagination, and to direct it away from the disasters that fill the headlines.

One might think that the “Cunningham-style modern dance” is summed up in the number with which the show dramatically opens; a demanding, tightly-executed ensemble piece. Its abstract and austere aesthetic turns the dancers into vehicles for exploring space and line. It’s what many may associate with Cunningham. It features none of the narrative impulses, controlling artistic ego, and displays of extreme affect that Cunningham came to reject after years as a member of Martha Graham’s company. This number ends as abruptly as it begins, standing outside the character-and-Broadway-driven scenes that follow. Actually, Cunningham’s imprint is all over the show, not just here. Cunningham himself might have said “I Wanted to be on Broadway”: he started his dance life in tap and vaudeville. And didn’t lose the ludic spirit of those popular forms. His 1958 work Antic Meet impishly mashes up concert and popular performance modes, parodies himself and Martha Graham (among others), laughs at the gravitas of avant-garde aesthetics, and most famously, straps a chair to a central dancer. Mixing the absurd with popular dance and satire: this is Cunningham’s legacy, too, and Lambert honors it here. But in her own unique style.  

There’s all sorts of absurdity in this show, in fact, and it nods not only to Cunningham but also to Dada. (Lambert acknowledges Hugo Ball as an inspiration.)  Dada responded to early twentieth-century nationalism, capitalism, and war, challenging bourgeois aesthetics and “rationality” through an experimental “anti-art” that scrambled semantic conventions. That was then. This is now. To advocate nonsense within a society that celebrates reason was a radical intervention 100 years ago. But how useful is the device of nonsense now, when we are faced with a chaotic government that dismisses science and parades its own absurdity daily? Actually, this show suggests, pretty darn useful.

It’s visual absurdity, that celebrates the chameleon plasticity and multi-functionality of the human body, that most delights here: a dancer, legs splayed on the floor, whose hands execute the elaborate tap dance customarily reserved for feet; the extended leg that morphs from being a dancer’s limb into a telephone receiver used by her auditioning partner. Verbal absurdity abounds too: during one scene, the aspiring Broadway dancers jostle for the limelight by singing fragments from showtunes, quickly descending into a hilarious, Darwinian battle of gibberish. In another scene, a dancer explains to her friend the reasons for her recent audition rejections, in which she has been found too old, too young, too tall, too short, too weird, not weird enough, yada yada yada. The stream of adjectives, like the stream of musical lines, lightly but firmly directs us to the ridiculous conditions in which American performers strain to survive.

Another kind of comedy emerges with the two actors whose storyline grounds the show. (A refreshing change from the dramatic convention that treats clowns as bit players.) Through their antics, the human and animal collide and converge, especially in the bear costumes they arrive at as the gimmick for their dream Broadway number. We first encounter them working on their number with the aid of some laughable mnemonics, after which they brainstorm a fanciful list of animal hooks. Which leads us to expect something exotic, not the goofy brown bears they later appear to have settled on. A strong gag is made even stronger by being doubled: there are two bear costumes, the manufactured grinning bodysuit that Taryn spends their whole budget on, and the jaunty, crude, handmade bear halo that Josh devises.   Ultimately, the actors triumph in all their silliness; we move from laughing at them to cheering them on. When they are joined on stage by three shimmying, sexily-dressed professional dancers, the incongruous blend of corny bear apparel and razzmatazz works beautifully. The joke is on the audience for assuming that it wouldn’t, for holding to exclusionary norms of artistic decorum.

Which is to say that Lambert uses positive, funny absurdity to affirm our creative ability to disrupt norms and create new connections. She also uses it to subvert, criticize and satirize what diminishes humanity. To expose what is destructively absurd, like the reductive regimented aesthetics of the culture industry, and the soul-sapping conditions of life endured by professional performers. We are invited  to think and feel how life could be otherwise, could be as dynamic, surprising and resourceful as the movements and images on stage.

Young Manic closes with as striking a finale as its opening—but the two could not be more different. Joining the actors and the shimmy brigade are the remaining dancers, who, as in the opening, perform technically challenging work. This time, however, they are festive. Instead of the opening ensemble’s anonymity, the individual personalities of the performers get to breathe and shine. (Including a gorgeous arabesque penché from Ivana Lin). Lambert, throughout the show, harmonizes the impressive strengths of actors and dancers while maintaining their disciplinary differences. She also uses dancers of a wide range of body-types. This all makes for a very satisfying  finale. It’s a dream come true, for the actors. Joshua’s gift to Taryn, he tells her, is the service of these  professional dancers. (We will never know how he found the cash, but we do know that cash has changed hands). And voila! they are now effectively on Broadway.

Rather than a clichéd happy ending, it’s the culmination of a richer, more complex set of ideas. The opening abstract dance lingers on, in interesting unresolved tension with this exuberant conclusion. That, and the fact that the only truly fulfilled dreamers are the amateurs (the actors), not the professional dancers, undermines the finale’s status as a conventional, all-embracing, joyful end. It’s instead a brief glimpse of utopia, and a commentary on the structures that get in utopia’s way. We may get there from here, but only if we keep dreaming, keep playing, and keep working  towards that change in whatever way works for us. “AJnC” is pronounced “Agency”, it’s worth noting.  

**With thanks to Hannah Rae for stimulating, insightful dialogue!

  • Young Manic/I Wanted to be on Broadway Produced by: AJnC Dance-Theater
  • Young Manic/I Wanted to be on Broadway Directed and Choreographed by: Amy J. Lambert
  • Young Manic/I Wanted to be on Broadway February 16 - February 25, 2018 performed at Velocity Dance Center
  • Young Manic/I Wanted to be on Broadway PerformersMargaret Behm, Danica Bito, Charmaine Butcher, Taryn Collis, Rachel Halmrast, Tyra Kopf, Ivana Lin, Jaclyn Mason, Elizabeth Monsoor, Mariko Nagashima, Drew Santoro, and Joshua Williamson
  • Review by:  Laura Chrisman