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Poised to launch into a scene from his autobiographical choreoplay Dream Analysis, Mark Dendy has his legs wrapped around a wooden chair at Dance Theater Workshop's rehearsal studio in Chelsea. The piece weaves the story of a budding female impersonator haunted by his mother, the two halves of Nijinsky's personality, Judy Garland, and two Martha Grahams. With his face at rest, Dendy, short of stature and hair, resembles a cherub, albeit one contemplating his first sin. Suddenly, the scene begins. Dendy juts out his chin and exposes his lower teeth, as if possessed. His eyes narrow. Martha Graham speaks through him. "I've styled my hair tonight as the high priestess of myth overseeing the iconographic matriarchal sacrifice," purrs the Tennessee-bred Dendy. "But then there comes that moment when you glimpse at yourself in the mirror and it dawns on you that she is looking at you and recognizing you as herself." Then, with a flare of his eyelids, he rises, turns upstage, and strides elegantly away.
This hilarious bit of scenery-chewing actually loses something in performance. When it's fully staged, during Dream Analysis's three-week run at DTW opening Thursday, Dendy and Richard Move will play the monologue dressed in identical gold-lamé-and-black gowns, mimicking each other's gestures from either side of a fake mirror. But Richard isn't here today. Dendy's theonly Martha, though to the eye he's just a half-naked, tattooed, and bearded gay guy, with only his vocal technique and his downright creepy ability to switch rapidly between a Martha Graham impression and his own larger-than-life stage presence to support this particular illusion. But that's plenty. When Dream Analysis played the Joyce in January as part of the 1998 Altogether Different festival, it garnered raves from The New York Times, surrogate brain of the bourgeoisie, which called the company "brilliant." Dendy was less than satisfied. "I thought it was terribly flawed, but I didn't let on once everybody else loved it. So now I'm going back to try to fix it."
Like Martha, the 37-year-old actor-writer-choreographer considers himself a perfectionist. "I was so influenced by Graham," he gushes. "She was the first drag queen I was ever exposed to. She knocked me off my feet! She took herself so seriously, but she also knew it was an act." Of course, though he may idolize the mother of modern dance, there comes "that moment." Dendy might just as easily describe himself that way--without even switching the pronouns. Indeed, Dendy's life and work seems to organize itself around a zillion seeming opposites, whipping them into a confused froth until they form sweet stiff peaks: innocence and depravity, high and low culture, spirituality and evil, masculinity and femininity, glamour and sleaze. "There's something queer about him," says David Drake, who plays the psychoanalyzed young Dendy stand-in, Eric Henley. "Specifically queer--not 'gay,' because it's all twisted up in there."
Try this twisted-up identity on for size: gay fundamentalist, born in Weaverville, North Carolina, where his grandfather was the town's Presbyterian minister and his grandmother a converted Jew. Dendy's grandparents were fire-and-brimstone Christians, but they and his parents sorta knew he was gay. His parents knew well enough that after moving to Nashville, they didn't discourage his artistic leanings. Dendy attended a magnet school where after 1 p.m. every day he took classes in theater and dance, and then began rehearsals at 7. "In my second semester, the modern teacher put on some Harry Belafonte and told us to improvise," he remembers. "I totally went off. The spirit came into me and I just went off to this music like I'd never done before. Afterward, the teacher said, 'I need to speak to you.' She told me I had a gift for movement and encouraged me to keep taking classes. So that was it, I was bitten." Dance had found him, naturally, by way of a neoreligious epiphany, with undertones of a scene from Beetlejuice.
His father found him in other compromising positions, but according to Dendy, he chose to look the other way. "When I was 16, my Dad walked in on me a couple of times while I was having sex with a guy. Once we acted like we were sleeping. We just froze. The other time we acted like we were wrestling. He told us, 'Put some clothes on, come on out here, and watch TV!'" In typical Southern fashion, however, the love dared not speak its name until the lover turned 30. "I always knew that my mother knew the deeper truth, that [her religious fervor] was bullshit, that it was an act. It was her role and she had taken this part and she couldn't get out of it so she had to act it."
But again, there comes that moment. Dendy would later juxtapose two seemingly irreconcilable parts of his background in the same persona, and distill a character from his mother's mask: Sandy Sheets. His drag alter ego, styled by Andre Shoals (a/k/a Afrodite) while the two were on tour with fellow Southern choreographer Jane Comfort, clipped Dendy's evangelical roots to his homo activism. She was a walking contradiction, a "televangelist transvestite" who "did homophobic exorcisms" and "took homophobic demons out of people." She quoted from the Bible, Dendy recalls, teaching "the true message of Jesus, which is unconditional love for your--snap!--fellow man." She burned a replica of the Branch Davidian compound onstage at P.S. 122. At Mona Foot's Star Search, Crowbar's long-running drag competition, Sandy Sheets upset the unstoppable Girlina, who had enjoyed a months-long, Jeopardy-type championship. She was audacious, extreme, and above all, hilarious.