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Mark Dendy Projects: An East Village Tale for the Ages

by Bonnie Rosenstock
May 8, 2015
Joe's Pub
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10003
212-967-7555
Mark Dendy was a mainstay of downtown experimental dance and East Village drag when he packed up and redeployed uptown to choreograph for more commercial venues: Broadway musicals, opera companies, major ballet companies, and even the Rockettes. After an emotional crisis and some soul searching, he returned to his adopted downtown roots (he is originally from southern Appalachia), and he and his audiences are having so much more fun.

In 2008, Dendy established Mark Dendy Projects with longtime collaborator Stephen Donovan to create socially conscious dance-theater works, some in site-specific locations. "Golden Belt" (2009) was staged in a former textile mill that supplied cotton bags for loose-leaf tobacco and related paraphernalia—now home to an urban arts center in Durham, North Carolina. "Ritual Cyclical" (2013) opened the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, which commemorated the 80th anniversary of the American Dance Festival and the 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet, and had a decidedly cheeky sociopolitical underpinning. Wall Streeters, wealthy opera patrons, Brooklyn hipsters, blue-collar workers and a militaristic police presence didn't escape his keen eye. "Dystopian Distractions! (2014) took on the U.S. war machine as discerned through our pop culture.

His latest work, "NEWYORKnewyork@AstorPlace," had its world premiere at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater from May 6 to 9, kicking off the 20th anniversary of DANCENOWNYC. You couldn't have asked for a more site-specific location, as writer/director Dendy wove a fascinating history of the Astor family and the Astor Library, home to the Public since 1967, into the larger fabric of the East Village and its denizens, and more broadly, the City itself.

The landmark Library is a stone's throw from Astor Place and acted as a springboard for Dendy's tales of greed, real estate, gentrification, AIDS, race, riots, tabloid news and economic disparity—a microcosm of the City's checkered past, complex present and indeterminate future—related through smart, biting monologues and dialogues and glorious dance, choreographed by Dendy in collaboration with the performers. Threaded throughout is a reverent homage to books and its unfortunately fading place in our culture.

Seated off to the right side of the sliver of pie-shaped Pub stage, Dendy hosted the evening as businessman, racehorse breeder and yachtsman William B. Astor, Jr. (1829-1892), grandson and heir to German-born John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), and provided delicious morsels of information, gossip and social commentary about this family line down to the present. Starting with the "founding father," JJA was America's first multi-millionaire, who built his fortune by gaining a stranglehold over the fur trade (check out those beavers at the Astor Place subway station) and later as an opium smuggler, real estate magnate and slumlord, insensitive to the plight of the poor. ("Accumulate, speculate and calculate" and "Let them lift themselves up," JJA declared via Dendy.) As a famed patron of the arts, he funded the building of the Astor Library, which opened in 1854 as a free research library. However, its books did not circulate, and the hours were not conducive to the needs of the general public.

The set consisted of lightweight, portable white stacking blocks, which shape-shifted. First, they were erected like temple columns. The Greek chorus, Mei Yamanaka, built like a Doric column herself—long legs and arms, but with gazelle-like movements —destroyed the columns so they looked like a city in ruins. Later, they transformed into open books, "the tactile experience of a book," lauded our narrator, bemoaning this loss to e-books, Kindles, cell phones and the like.

The story was not linear but skipped around timelines with ease. Some characters appeared once and others were recurring figures, like the tour guide (Alice Klugherz)) who related with gusto and some exaggeration the misfortunes and fortunes of the East Village to out-of-towners. Historical tidbits included the Astor Place Riot (1849), a dispute between an American and a British Shakespearean actor and their supporters at the now-demolished Astor Opera House, which turned deadly, giving rise to the name "Disaster Place."

Kudos to the talented cast: Christopher Bell, whose stripper routine was naughtily nice. Danté Brown, who vogued with gusto. Leslie Cuyjet for her fun Can-Can. Abigail Levine in a red wig while Taylor Swift's recorded interview about her new-found love affair for the Big Apple was played, a satire unto itself without any need for additional comment from Dendy. The three witches from Macbeth (Klugherz, Cuyjet and Abigail Levine), who did Shakespeare proud. The spangled Yamanaka, Cuyjet, Levine, Bell and Brown for their attitudinous performance to "Walk on the Wild Side" sung by the late, beloved downtown icon Lou Reed. The song, so emblematic of the East Village past, sent the audience swooning. Most of the show's music came from John Zorn's "Naked City" album (1990).

And, to the fearless, risk-taking Dendy, for creating such a remarkable show, where you laugh and nod your head in recognition (especially we longtime East Villagers/New Yorkers) until you realize that what he was relating wasn't always so funny after all.
Pictured L-R: Alice Klugherz, Leslie Cuyjet, Abigail Levine in Mark Dendy's 'NewYorknewyork @Astor Place.'

Pictured L-R: Alice Klugherz, Leslie Cuyjet, Abigail Levine in Mark Dendy's "NewYorknewyork @Astor Place."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Pictured L-R: Mei Yamanaka, Abigail Levine, Leslie Cuyjet in Mark Dendy's 'NewYorknewyork @Astor Place.'

Pictured L-R: Mei Yamanaka, Abigail Levine, Leslie Cuyjet in Mark Dendy's "NewYorknewyork @Astor Place."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Pictured: Abigail Levine and Christopher Bell in Mark Dendy's 'NewYorknewyork @Astor Place.'

Pictured: Abigail Levine and Christopher Bell in Mark Dendy's "NewYorknewyork @Astor Place."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Pictured: Abigail Levine (center), Back L-R: Christopher Bell, Dante Brown, Leslie Cuyjet, Mei Yamanaka in Mark Dendy's 'NewYorknewyork @Astor Place.'

Pictured: Abigail Levine (center), Back L-R: Christopher Bell, Dante Brown, Leslie Cuyjet, Mei Yamanaka in Mark Dendy's "NewYorknewyork @Astor Place."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Pictured: Dante Brown (center), <br>Back L-R: Christopher Bell, Abigail Levine, Leslie Cuyjet, Mei Yamanaka in Mark Dendy's 'NewYorknewyork @Astor Place.'

Pictured: Dante Brown (center),
Back L-R: Christopher Bell, Abigail Levine, Leslie Cuyjet, Mei Yamanaka in Mark Dendy's "NewYorknewyork @Astor Place."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Pictured Center L-R: Leslie Cuyjet, Dante Brown, Mei Yamanaka Back Left: Abigail Levine, Christopher Bell, Right: Mark Dendy in Mark Dendy's 'NewYorknewyork @Astor Place.'

Pictured Center L-R: Leslie Cuyjet, Dante Brown, Mei Yamanaka Back Left: Abigail Levine, Christopher Bell, Right: Mark Dendy in Mark Dendy's "NewYorknewyork @Astor Place."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Pictured L-R: Dante Brown, Mei Yamanaka, Leslie Cuyjet, Abigail Levine Floor/front: Christopher Bell in Mark Dendy's 'NewYorknewyork @Astor Place.'

Pictured L-R: Dante Brown, Mei Yamanaka, Leslie Cuyjet, Abigail Levine Floor/front: Christopher Bell in Mark Dendy's "NewYorknewyork @Astor Place."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu

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