New York Live Arts, New York, New York, January 7, 2019
Watching Jack Ferver’s “Everything is Imaginable” is akin to armchair cliff diving. This thrilling dance/theater piece—which returned to New York Live Arts from January 7-12 after a critically acclaimed run last April—showcases both the highs and lows of queer experience. Act 1 closes on four men in colorful fringe dresses lip syncing for their lives and grinding on each other in glee. Act 2 closes on a solitary man (Ferver) in black contemplating his suicidal urges. Though vertigo-inducing, these two halves prove to be profoundly complementary.
The curtain rose with a hymnal incantation of “Judy” to reveal American Ballet Theatre principal dancer James Whiteside, a vision in a short spangly gown. He lip synced to Garland’s “I Happen to Like New York.” Though attired in women’s wear (the pitch-perfect costumes throughout are by Reid & Harriet Design) he sported a trim beard and a clean face. It was immediately apparent that this work was about the queer toggle between worlds and identities. Whiteside performed a mix of tap and jazz styles and nervous-breakdown tics as he committedly mouthed the words to the song. When he collapsed to the floor at the end I figured he had enacted the Judy Garland life story and was playing dead in a barbiturate-induced sleep. Only after Lloyd Knight ended his solo the same way did I realize that Ferver had larger designs.
But in that moment, as Whiteside was splayed on his back in a cold spotlight, his heavy breathing caused his sparkly dress to radiate disco-ball glints. Even in repose he shimmered, oozing charisma. I was reminded of the oppressive weight of fame on Garland’s shoulders as well as the public’s obsession with parsing the polymathic Whiteside’s every move. A prodigious ballet talent, he has refused to let the conventions of the art form confine him. He frequently dabbles in acting and performance art—most notably with his drag group the Dairy Queens—and has incurred much backlash from the traditional balletomane set for his experimentation. Interestingly, to my ballet-trained eyes the most feminizing thing about him was the exaggerated line of his hyperextended legs into his supremely arched feet. Most ballerinas would kill for those gams. Also fascinating, though he intently sang along with Garland he best approximated her voice through his movements—as when he flapped like a bird to her “likes” in the lyrics. What exactly are the aesthetic signifiers of gender in dance? What is the difference between acting and embodiment? This was just the start of a night of compelling questions.
Ferver’s focus throughout “Everything is Imaginable” is this uncomfortable nonconformity. His four muses are successful, accomplished artists. Yet they faced tremendous adversity on their paths to greatness in the performing arts. For this work Ferver asked each of them to name their childhood idol and he choreographed solos for them in which they personified their choices. For the most part, the dances are joyful and hilarious. But as each man lays down at the end of his solo and calms his breath in turn, an underlying melancholy is apparent. You could view them as young boys daydreaming in their bedrooms or adult artists grappling with their thoughts. These artists fought hard to realize their dreams, and their heroes were more than inspiration. They were lifelines.
Lloyd Knight, a principal dancer with the Martha Graham company, was the second soloist. He danced a lyrical homage to Graham while dressed in a mesh version of her white gown from “Letter to the World.” He was accompanied by recorded passages from various Graham interviews. After Whiteside’s campy Garland impression, in which the dissonance between him and his idol was part of the gag, it was surprising how natural Knight seemed as a Graham doppelganger. He made you believe that her words were captions of his thoughts. As she described a dancer’s two great gifts—simplicity and spontaneity—Knight personified both as he stoically held attitude poses and carved muscular shapes in the ether. It was only when Graham passionately described “a woman eating her own heart” that I remembered that Knight was not actually Graham. It was also the first moment I thought about his gender at all during the solo. He adopted her struggles as his own, and his own struggles were channeled through her movement vocabulary. After he vacated the stage a puddle of sweat in the shape of his outline remained. It was tangible proof that daydreaming is real, important work that can effect mental and physical change. And playing pretend can sometimes lead to catharsis.
That dewy patch should have been mopped up by a Zamboni, for the next solo was ballet dancer/Broadway actor Garen Scribner’s hilarious ode to the figure skater Brian Boitano. He wore tight-fitting sheer turquoise and danced in socks to the sound of blades on ice (arranged by Jeremy Jacob). Ferver deftly approximated the feeling one has while watching figure skating. He had Scribner sort of moonwalk-slide backwards in his socks at first. Scribner then planted himself for a stint in each corner of the stage in second position as if soaring around a rink. He sold the illusion that in his mind he was gliding across the ice through his total commitment and his pleased half-smirk. This was one of many places in which Ferver inserted some dancer inside jokes. For what ballet student hasn’t watched skating and mocked the turned in, sickled penchés? Or fooled around after dance class and tried to turn a balletic double saut de basque into a double axel during Olympics mania? (Ferver puts that in too.) Ballet dancers would fall flat on their faces on real ice, of course. The sport is so close yet so far from ballet, and Ferver tapped into that as he had Scribner hop and spin in bad plank arabesques and other blocky poses.
Boitano was a fitting choice for Ferver’s overall theme too. Boitano won his Olympic championship in 1988 but didn’t come out as gay until 2013, long after hanging up his skates. Ferver winks at the obviousness of Boitano’s homosexuality in a repeated motif of backwards skating in which Scribner’s bobbing ass made passes straight at the audience. Some of the orgy scene looked tamer than this. People were laughing hysterically.
Hilarity greeted the costumer/dancer Reid Bartelme as well. He trotted onto the scene as a My Little Pony in a see-through pastel horse suit with a hot pink ponytail. He perfectly blended into the Seussian pink chandeliers and pillars of Jeremy Jacob’s set—right down to his black dance belt which matched the scenery’s black outlining. Bartelme had no music or soundtrack, save for two times when he opened his mouth and recorded birdsong erupted. He pranced and tried to corral his wayward neon mane as best he could. Being a magical pony is hard work! Here was another point smartly made about living out your fantasies: it’s not as easy as you’d think. Just because you are obsessed with Martha Graham does not mean you will become a principal in her company.
In another dancerly joke Ferver had Bartelme perform a simple grand jété passage from the corner again and again. What is the ballet equivalent of wild horses running free? Soaring leaps from only one’s right (and likely good) side. Naturally. Bartelme’s utter seriousness and his dedication to pony hands—even when swatting away errant strands of horsehair—were heart-melting even as they were hilarious. What does it mean to identify so strongly with a mystical toy species? I would love to see Ferver make a spinoff of this solo exploring Brony culture.
After his solo, Bartelme returned to the stage in a short pink fringe dress to lip sync to the club track “Xcuse Me (Where are My Sunglasses)” by the DJ’s and Franklin Fuentes. I appreciated Ferver’s clever jump here from innocent pony to Crazy Horse. Bartelme made several “show it, hide it” strut passes before pulling some sunglasses out of his dance belt. Then the three other muses joined him for a mix of basic jazz steps—pas de bourrés and chassés done goofily deadpan and in unison—as well as classical ballet pas de deux work and the the exuberant miming of a gay bacchanal. Whiteside bounced in a split for quite a spell, and there were some eruptions of laughter between the men. The audience was left with a euphoric celebration of queer culture.
What a shock it was when Act 2 opened on Jack Ferver himself, wearing a black mesh unitard in a black room, standing godlike over a mini model of Act 1’s set with his back to the audience. He spoke of injuring his calf and his resulting limitations. He relayed how his physical therapist told him not to jump or to dance and to only walk backwards for this piece. It was a prompt to peer backwards into his own childhood, to recall the gay-bashing from his childhood “friends” and the more recent death of his mother. He ruminated on depression and thoughts of suicide and his ill-treatment at the hands of a critic. This long, dark monologue was interrupted at one point by the entrance of Bartelme, now cloaked in long black fringe. They danced to one screechy phrase from Danny Elfman’s score for Batman Returns played over and over. (Ferver’s childhood idol was Catwoman: sleek, shattered, revenge-bent.)
Bartelme mirrored Ferver at first and then circled around him with pagan chugging, witchy conjuring, and convulsions on the floor. He was a dark angel, feeding Ferver’s blackest impulses while also sometimes sustaining him. After Bartelme left, Ferver, winded, resumed his monologue. And from then on as he spoke he was in constant motion. He made funny little movements, like pivoting slowly in a position close to yoga’s Eagle Pose, or cranking his hip repeatedly while on all fours. Ever the dutiful patient, he crawled backwards. His intense, personal confession was set off by these quirky repetitions. But even from his standstill opening, his ironic delivery and phrasing managed to make his tales of woe quite humorous. This active piddling about only added to the comedy. The biggest laugh line of the night was when he recounted how his mother told him solemnly from her death bed: “tragedy follows you.” I can’t think of many people who could pull that off.
Though stylistically lopsided, both acts of “Everything is Imaginable” explored the tension between dark despair and the bright glee of the rainbow flag. That precipitousness was Ferver’s point, and the work’s structure perfectly underscored his thesis. Even when the muse quartet was joyfully twerking in Act 1’s finale, Ferver was referencing his predecessors tragically lost to the HIV epidemic. Ferver’s choreography made big swings from stars belting out showtunes and gymnastic team orgies to misanthropic compulsive tics. Though the work asked other huge, wonderful questions: for example, is an artist’s purpose escapism, exorcism, or ownership? The big takeaway was that for these five superlative artists that feeling of cliff diving was ever present.