As the lights went up on the opening night of the HERE Arts Center’s 25th anniversary season, the first thing the audience saw was five female dancers with their backs to the crowd, glistening in silver tinsel capes. This was the start of Stairway to Stardom, a new work written, directed, and choreographed by Amanda Szeglowski in collaboration with her company, cakeface. The piece, presented as part of HERE’s Artist Residency Program, consisted of a blend of elements: dance, spoken word, and, most auspiciously, projected clips of the Eighties public-access television show whose title Szeglowski takes as her own.
Flashing, distorted projections of the small-screen program’s talentless contestants appeared both on the backdrop of the stage and on constructed white-wall partitions. The set designer, Aviva Novick, created three dividers on each side of the stage to serve — like traditional “wings” — as entryways for the dancers. In addition, the partitions allowed the live audio and video mixers, Brian Wenner and Matt O’Hare of Prism House, to set up their stations semi-hidden from the audience’s view. Loud, pulsing electronic dance music and ominous neon-colored lights (designed by Amanda K. Ringger) further set the mood as the dancers —Szeglowski, Ali Castro, Jade Daugherty, Ayesha Jordan, and Nola Sporn Smith — turned toward the audience and nodded their heads in unison, indicating their readiness for a shot at fame.
When the performers — each dressed in a unique metallic costume designed by Oana Botez — weren’t slicing the air with their arms or vibrating their torsos to show off their shiny sparkles, they told us about their dreams of stardom, parental expectations, bad day jobs, and major regrets. Often, they spoke all at once, robotic in their delivery, with an occasional well-rehearsed stutter, seemingly on the brink of short-circuiting from the pressure. “What did your parents want you to be?” was a standout refrain. All the while, the constant projections beaming behind them reminded that the allure of being a star is an all too easily exploited one. Indeed, it was clear from the get-go that Szeglowski feels critically about Stairway to Stardom’s promise that its unknown contestants would be exposed to the bigwigs of the entertainment industry. In no way does Szeglowski feed into the ironic attitude that has led to the show’s cult following on the internet, but she does use the premise — its false golden opportunity of “making it” — as a tool to discuss the ongoing temptation of stardom.
Today, attempts at fame through YouTube videos are common and TV shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent still hold decent ratings, but the Eighties Stairway to Stardom, shot in what looked like a dingy basement, remains thought-provokingly pitiful. Its contestants cannot see their lack of talent, and viewers at the time tuned in to witness the train wreck. Szeglowski’s cast members, for their part, are nothing but talented, and are capable of getting into the minds of their audience with bitterly truthful life stories. Even better, they make you laugh along the way. The show ends with them lined up in a row, leaning toward the crowd, imparting, against the odds, a message of hope.
Stairway to Stardom
HERE Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue
Through September 23