Graham Cracker

Mark Dendy Celebrates His Inner Drag Queens

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.

Though it both satirizes and deifies his influences, Dendy insists that Dream Analysis is his story. "Everything else was a study that led up to this," he says. "I did that book The Artist's Way, where you write three pages a day and make all those collages and everything. This work came out of that book... as Martha Graham would say, 'the handling of the material of the self.'"Dream Analysis's protagonist, the starry-eyed Henley, who explains the complicated network of influences crashing through his psyche to a psychiatrist played by a drag queen, seems miles away from his no-nonsense, done-it-all-twice creator. "The boy is absolutely totally me," Dendy insists. "There is an innocent naïve idealistic hopeful inner child in me."

Yet 10 years ago, when it was just an enfant terrible, Dendy's inner child seemed to have been kidnapped. "Throughout the whole '80s, I drank heavily and did a whole lot of drugs. I'd get back from Europe, blow everything I made, charge money on my agent's credit card, hit the West Side Pier and hustle for three days, and then go on another binge. I was a mess! Then everything fell in on me at once. Spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially. I moved into Hotel 17 for two weeks. It's a hustler hotel with roaches. It's nasty and skanky. And it's gross."

As much as its theatrical component tells a story of the redemption and reconciliation of opposites, Dendy's choreography illustrates those themes with a brash clarity and humor that often proves more viscerally affecting and inventive than the text. Particularly exquisite is the final sequence, in which the two Nijinskys, accompanied by Claude Debussy's "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," perform a sensuous and virtuosic duet, practically in unison. At first running in place beside one another, occasionally breaking the pattern with a flourish of the arms, they begin to trade focus. Dendy blends his classical training with athletic cartwheels, quirky jerks, and strange spins. They stand on each other's calves. Twice it seems as if one Nijinsky has kicked the other. The Nijinskys use their hands for guides, elaborations, and punctuation. They slide over one another's backs, entwining limbs. At one point, they kiss in a way that does not seem labored, sentimental, or political. Their lips just happen to be in the same place at the same time, so they come together. Here, it seems, "that moment" takes on a greater meaning. No longer is it the matriarchal Martha, Mother, psychiatrist, or Judy Garland recognizing the seeker through the mirror; it's Dendy, recognizing himself as himself.

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