When AIDS-themed dance is a dress rehearsal for life
"I sort of felt that as long as I didn't take the test it didn't
have to be real." Mark Dendy is twirling a white-wrapped straw in
his fingers, as though it were a cigarette. His dirty blond hair has
been recently sheared from long curly locks to the buzz he now
sports, but even at this length the curls are straining for control
of his features. "But I knew. In 1988, I had a lover die from AIDS
and I knew that I had often had unprotected anally receptive sex
with him, and so I knew. But as long as I didn't take the test it
didn't have to be real."
It is hard to imagine that this mild-mannered, soft-spoken,
slight man is the controversial choreographer/director whose
innovative dance/theater pieces leave audiences spellbound. Then, as
he speaks, as he tells of his choices in life and health care, the
imagination comes into focus.
At 33, Dendy has received three NEA grants. His work is some of
the most promising the dance world has seen in recent years, yet
Dendy remains obscured from the mainstream. "I work in a lot of
disciplines," explains Dendy. "The modern dance world and the ballet
world have been very separate. They were sort of married in the
'70s, and the marriage is starting to be consummated, but they
remain at odds stylistically. They are different camps with
different artists. I am fortunate enough to work in both arenas. And
then theater is a different world still. It's like I am maintaining
several different careers."
This year Dendy has been in high demand. He spent the spring in
Hartford, Connecticut, where he choreographed Tony Kushner's The
Dybbuk, returning to New York long enough to stage a new dance piece
and premiere a new one-act play. Then he jetted to Paris to revive
his Classic Stage Company turn as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass
Menagerie. This summer he was one of the artists in residence at the
American Dance Festival, before running off to Seattle to stage a
new production of Cinderella for the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
His one-person show (for which he ditches dance) Busride To
Heaven has received acclaim from coast to coast. In Busride, Dendy
brings us four very different characters with one thing in common:
Very recent death. They are each filling out questionnaires about
the lives they just led while awaiting a cloud to take them on to
their final destinations. Busride hit the road this fall with tour
dates in Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Miami.
An earlier work, Back Beat, takes a hard, fast look at AIDS and
the anger associated with the loss it brings. "I did it first in
1991, and it was actually about me. It's really funny because it was
the one place where my denial didn't hold. If it did, it's only in
that I directed the piece, so someone else was up there being me.
Also, the character went to a doctor. I didn't do that. For me, Back
Beat was a way to do the things that I was supposed to do, to have
them be real, without them having to be real. What is really funny
is that most of the dance world, and even most of the company,
thought that I was coming out, that this was my story and that it
was all real. I didn't actually test until three years later and I
still don't have a doctor."
Avoiding doctors is a conscious choice for Dendy. "I don't want
anyone arguing with me about my protocol. I don't trust Western
medicine. I am taking a holistic approach. I read a lot and I know a
lot. I do a lot of meditation. I think that is very important,
hooking into that universal power, that thing in the universe which
is healing my body. I exercise. And another really important part of
my protocol is not what I take, but what I don't take. No alcohol.
No recreational drugs. No sugar. No caffeine. No city water --
always seltzer for me."
But it's not always no. "I have to admit I can still be a closet
smoker, like after sex or something. I'm a Jackie O smoker. I never
do it in public." And addressing AIDS publicly is no longer a
substitute for fully dealing with it privately. "I have other
moments. Like I had a steak au poivre in Paris which, even though I
had diarrhea for two days, was totally worth it." Putting it on
stage couldn't make that any more real.