Philadelphia’s largest LGBTQ theater festival, GayFest! by Quince Productions, returns this August 5-23 to Plays and Players Skinner Studio. Opening this year’s festival is the The Bang Group’s HEAD OVER HEELS, a high energy mix of concert dance, slapstick, and musical theater in a cabaret setting. Artistic director and choreographer David Parker took time with me to offer some insights into the dance and his New York City dance ensemble’s interests in creating the piece.
Katelyn Bobek: What inspired the choice of HEAD OVER HEELS as the opening piece for GayFest!’s fourth year?
David Parker: I have several pieces I’ve been developing in the last five years which are intended for cabaret stages, and that has changed the way I make them. First of all, we’re a contemporary dance company, we have a focus on rhythm, but in making work for cabaret stages I’ve tried to take into account very small stages, an emphasis on entertaining, and entertainment values more so than I might consider for concert stages. And because it’s my work and I love it, I’ve tried to take iconic images and elements from musical theater and queer them, so to speak.
We do have a focus on rhythm; these cabaret shows have featured a lot of tap dancing. It’s been a way for me to explore this more exuberant side of my own work and my own interests. So, they’re gay, they’re entertaining, and they’re highly rhythm driven.
KB: You use a lot of counterpoint and rhythm. Do you think you’ve allowed that playful aspect of your work more over your journey as a choreographer or is that something you’ve always felt comfortable showing?
DP: I think I’ve always felt comfortable showing it; but I trust it more now than I used to. I used to puzzle over what on Earth it was that made things funny, and what didn’t. Even kind of the same content could be funny or not funny depending on how it was done. Just through experience and through paying attention in the theater with audiences, not so much in rehearsal, but really paying attention in the theater I’ve learned to trust my instincts which have become very honed by audiences. I learned to get a sense of audiences and when I can feel that they are ready for something to be humorous. The curse of being funny is that there are times when I don’t feel funny and the works I make are not sometimes and everybody wants them to be. But I think HEAD OVER HEELS, because it’s a cabaret show, is more open about that element.
KB: In terms of your choreography, there is so much humor and emotion mixed with the technical dancing. In cabaret I imagine this is less of an expectation, but in dance there is often a sober emphasis on watching. How do you encourage and allow laughter for your audience?
DP: That’s a question that has stayed in my mind the whole time I’ve been choreographing. I’m never really sure where it comes from in my work, but I know it’s there, and I just try to stay out of its way so that it can exist. When we get to the theater, when I have a new piece, I really don’t know for sure where people will respond. And even in New York City, there is a, as you say, sober idea about what can go on in a dance performance, and usually I find that surprises in rhythm are what trigger people to react with laughter. It’s not even so much whether something is actually so funny, but there’s an element of surprise just in the very rhythms that people are doing which bring forward something that’s funny.
I don’t think so much about how good the joke is but how good the timing is, and that tends I think to loosen audiences up. We found even when we performed in Europe that, after a piece has been done a lot, and we know where people tend to laugh, that the laughs tend to be in the same place. I think that’s because it’s kinetic, that the humor is somehow kinetic.
KB: It seems particularly poignant this year that marriage is a subject in HEAD OVER HEELS. Do you think the recent marriage equality decisions in Pennsylvania and the country have changed audience members’ relationship to the piece?
DP: The decision about the Defense of Marriage Act? Yeah, well yes. I made a piece called Showdown in 2008, and that was an adaptation of “Annie Get Your Gun” and one of the songs from that show is called “Old Fashioned Wedding” and my dance partner Jeff and I sang it to each other, it’s a marriage song that we sang and danced with each other. In 2008, more at the beginning where the marriage equality movement started to become a national issue, that number felt like a real call to arms, like a real anthem in favor of it.
Now since 2008, of course, with things like the Supreme Court decision and state by state, people coming around, now it’s the majority of the country, then it was a vocal minority. Now I feel we’re able to take for granted audiences, especially in a situation like GayFest!, really will understand that this is just an inevitable phenomenon, it’s no longer at the cutting edge of activism. It’s now time, I think especially in the show HEAD OVER HEELS, to move beyond just advocating for marriage equality but exploring what it’s like to be in these long term relationships.
HEAD OVER HEELS is kind of a post marriage equality show because it examines the relationship of same-sex couples to monogamy, to infidelity, to renewing romance. It’s kind of like, well, what happens after, after we have these rights. I wouldn’t have made the show if the world, or at least the United States, hadn’t changed the way it has in the past few years. So I do think it’s kind of the ability now to move beyond struggle and into the experience of what this is really meaning to people who are both wanting to get married and not wanting to get married.
HEAD OVER HEELS takes a kind of a skewed view of romance, it’s no longer just in favor of things but kind of picking apart “what does it mean when you”, “what is committment”, and how does it work, and how do you, and is monogamy worthwhile. So there’s a lot of songs and dance numbers which express a kind of conflicted relationship to long-term romance, which I feel free now to do because you don’t have to be quite so positive about the whole thing. You can actually treat it as a real phenomenon, as a real part of our culture.
You can see HEAD OVER HEELS August 5-6, 2014 at 7pm at the Plays and Players Skinner Studio as part of GayFest! A reception will be held after August 5th’s performance. http://www.quinceproductions.com/gayfest.html