More Dance Musings – maybe for 9×22?

I have been thinking a lot about dance as a liberatory practice. I know this stems in part from my involvement with Don’t You Feel It Too?, a dance practice which touches on a lot of things, including personal liberation and social healing. (Summer sessions last week, in fact, and the next one is today! See you there?)

Photo Credit Steve Cohen

One of the results of practicing this form for me is an exploration of vulnerability and earnestness. This is something that has long terrified me. I much prefer the snarky commentary, the self-degrading humor, the tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top. To be clear, I think these are not solely a way to avoid earnestness, but are sometimes a more comfortable way of entering into authentic earnest self. (I think of exercises in Hijack’s improv class, where sometimes doing the opposite of a thing is the back-door way of accessing the thing itself.)

But I’ve been inspired by a number of things I’ve seen lately- dances that don’t shy away from the sad or serious or earnest or vulnerable; dances that don’t rely on snark or over-the-topness. (SuperGroup’s In Which ______ and Others Discover the End, Samantha Johns and Annie Enneking’s what i want now i will want later, Aniccha Arts’ Every Other.) These pieces have forayed deeply into an-all-encompassing atmospheres, embracing and completing the task of immersing the audience in something serious, steeped in feelings, evoking an echo of those feelings in the viewer. They have touched me in ways that were devoid of irony, camp, parody, or tongue-in-cheek (though some also had moments of humor or used ironic juxtapositions).

Again, I value irony and parody- I have always believed that these sometimes cynical, critical tools can illuminate an earnest truth, can be authentic, are, in fact, sometimes necessary to save earnestness from a cloying preciousness. But there is another kind of earnestness that is newly fascinating to me- the kind that is bolstered by whole-hearted vulnerability. The kind of vulnerability that can acknowledge itself, it’s flaws, it’s hopes, without laughing at them, making light of them, or excusing them.

I am suddenly thinking of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s solo show to an albumn of beloved Joni Mitchell songs. I am seeing the opening, where she stood, in stillness, looking at the audience, just looking. I did not have the same attatchment to Joni Mitchell, but Keersmaeker’s commitment, whole-hearted, honest, full and unapologetic, brought forth a gravity in her dance and in me.

And sometimes I see it in virtuosic movement- a body unafraid of revealing the wealth of personal information it houses, unafraid of intimacy, unafraid of meaning.

Chris Holman long ago commented that he would like to see Mad King Thomas do something serious. While again I defend the place of humor in seriousness, I think perhaps he was asking for this kind of bravery. The openness of earnest vulnerable dance. This still terrifies me, but maybe, maybe I am a step closer to being ready to engage in it. It means probably I will make some very bad dances, but that is part of the practice- unequivocally giving the dance with a wholeness of effort and an acceptance of humanness.

Fond Reminiscing

One of the most fun things about this show is that it is not only a chance to reminisce, but it’s actually an imperative part of the process. We’ve mentally gone through the last ten years of dances (and soon we’ll be going over the video footage as well!), imagining what will translate well (or strangely) onto new casts, what feels important not to miss, what we can excerpt, and how to represent the arc of that decade.

While we’ve had some arguments about which dances to include (it wouldn’t be Mad King Thomas without at least one argument) one clear answer was the very first dance we ever made: Pomo Looks Like Porno. The dance began as a drunken dream outside of Elizabeth Lostetter and Amanda Healy’s apartment in 2004, envisioned as Tara getting married to Prince with Monica and me as wedding bells. Over the course of the semester, it slowly morphed into a 10-minute performance that essentially encapsulated the last four-years of our Macalester education. (I’m sorry to report that Prince and the wedding quickly disappeared.) That dance was practically our thesis, a place to process post-modernism, gender, the Gaze, performativity, and complicity. Our very first experiment with audience participation was asking everyone to sit in their underwear.

We remounted this dance as part of our fringe show the year after graduating and haven’t really looked at it since. (It is, after all, on a VHS tape.) But the themes from that first dance still motivate our current work, and the sense of vulnerability and exploration that characterized that first piece have carried through as well, not to mention the use of dance as cultural analysis, pop references, and tongue-in-cheek vulgarity. (Not that underwear seems so vulgar now, but you have to start somewhere.)

I am so excited to see how Pomo Looks Like Porno will appear in our 10th Anniversary show. Probably it will show it’s age, and our youth, but that is perhaps part of the joy of remounting it. I have about 5 different dream casts for this dance; who indeed, can be baby-faced Mad King Thomas? In some ways, the seed for our 10th anniversary show was already in this first piece: we had a doppelganger for each of us, shadowing our young selves.

I’m also excited that we will be documenting this anniversary show in all it’s full glory, with more than a shitty camcorder on a tripod recording a VHS for posterity. Ben McGinley is the other seed for this piece. He once wrote of Mad King Thomas, “…they are their work. You couldn’t set a MKT piece on any three other women and have it work the way it should.” And so here we go, setting our work on all sort of men and seeing if it can still work the way it should. We’re stoked that Ben will be filming the show as well as some interviews with us and our mentors. If we make our stretch goal, he’ll be editing it into a fabulous mini-documentary that will be available to everyone who backed the kickstarter. My 21-year-old self doesn’t even know what vimeo is- can’t even comprehend this awesomeness!

If your current self is even half as excited as baby-Mad-King-Thomas, please help us make our goal! Back our kickstarter and be part of making the 10th Anniversary into one of those new-fangled moving pictures!

An Idle Suggestion

So, I’ve been making little sacrifices at the altar of the gods of kickstarter. I haven’t killed any lambs or anything, but I figure a few chocolate bars and copious entrepreneurial moisture (alternating sweat and tears) counts for a lot.

I’ve realized that while worshiping mystical crowdfunding has its own charm, it might be more effective to share my secret hope to the world, where actual people can help me achieve it.

Here’s the deal: I am so so so excited by the idea of doing a custom singing-dancing-telegram. Sure, it’s terrifying to show up at some stranger’s house dressed in a unicorn costume, hoping they are home and it’s an opportune time to sing an off-key rendition of Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls, but also, what could be more awesome??? Except of course showing up at a stranger’s house nearly naked except cardboard heart sandwich boards, semi-tunefully singing “Be My Lover” and fake break-dancing? (These costumes are what I always envision wearing to a telegram- I think they were what originally inspired this dream many years ago.) 

I’ll admit I’m particularly partial to customized singing telegrams because I’ve had an incredibly awesome experience with one. A few years ago I asked the indomitable Dylan Fresco to deliver a singing telegram to my girlfriend during her birthday party. Right before we were about to eat cake, he showed up in polyester with a ukelele and proceeded to sing a hilarious ditty that ranged from charming to vulgar. The looks of amazement and horrified delight on everyone’s faces were PRICELESS. My only regret is that I didn’t run after Dylan and ask him to join us for cake. He’s an amazing performer, brilliant song-writer, and all-around delight of humanity.

So here’s my thought: maybe you know someone who is about to have a birthday, or mark an anniversary, or needs a pick-me-up. You and your friends join together and get this person a custom singing-and-dancing-telegram! Maybe you are about to go to your 10-year reunion at Macalester, and you need a special way to tell an old professor how much they still mean to you, or to complain to the administration about the newest way they are letting you down. Pull together some friends, family, or fellow alums and MKT will gripe/praise/delight them in style! Make it all happen here.

Feelings, Facebook, and Fabulous T-shirts: a Mad King Thomas Kickstarter Story

It’s wildly official: Mad King Thomas’ 10th Anniversary kickstarter is up and running! Curious to see it for yourself instead of reading about my feels? Check it out here.

Feelings! I have so many of them! It’s a mixture of relief, terror, and joy. Every article you read about how-not-to-fuck-up-your-kickstarter (and believe me, I’ve read about million now) warns you: crowdfunding is a lot of work. Pulling it together is a full-time job, so once we had it online and running, I was ready leap around with happiness and then immediately collapse onto my keyboard.

kitten on keyboard

Of course, that’s when the real work begins and the terror takes over. How many entertaining ways can we find to ask people to support us? Will we make our goal in time? Will people think our rewards are as awesome as we think they are? Will we accidentally burn dinner because we’re too busy posting about it on facebook? (This of course is the most frightening of all. Whenever food is involved the stakes are much higher.)

Despite the stress, it’s incredibly gratifying every time someone pledges. This is the lesson we learn every time we campaign- as much as money stresses us out, the tremendous support we feel each time someone donates is like a second gift. So THANK YOU to the fabulous folks who have buoyed us up so far! You are our champions, our knights in shining armor, our beloved unicorns, and then some.

The extra delight of a kickstarter is that we also get to scheme some rewards. I’m obviously stoked about the t-shirt (it’s pretty much all I’ve talked about on facebook and in the emails to MKT’s list.) Max Wirsing, dancer and designer extraordinaire, has blown us out of the water by redesigning our official seal. And by “redesigning” I mean we sent him this image that looks like a 5-year-old drew it:

and turned around this image!

I have been trying to make shirts with Mad King Thomas’ seal on it for the three of us for years, but I keep failing to because our seal looks so crappy. Now ALL OF MY DREAMS ARE COMING TRUE! No wonder it’s all I can talk about.

Speaking of the face space, not only would we appreciate your support in backing our kickstarter with your little green dead presidents, and we would also really love any broadcasting you would do on our behalf. Share our kickstarter on facebook! Invite friends, cousins, and frenemies to the event! Tweet about it via the tweeter-machine (aka Twitter)! Email your friends! Blackmail your enemies! Help us get the word out to everyone who loves to help make things more awesome!

Art, Anger, and the Choreography of Protest

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about anger and the place of art and activism. I was feeling feeling angry and tired and demoralized. No big surprise. (See Mike Brown. See Eric Garner. See the list of names that haven’t been as publicized. See the non-indictment of police officers in the murders of black, brown and indigenous people. See America.) I feel the kind of frustration that comes from still having hope but not having belief. The stagnation of anger without action, and the sense that action will not amount to anything. 

I’ve been going to a lot of protests- space for collective anger. I’ve noticed the different energies at each protest: the shift from outrage and grief right after Brown’s death towards greater fury and righteous indignation when his killer was not indicted. The energy matched the actions- the first rally culminating in a permitted march through downtown Minneapolis and the second culminating in a direct action march on 35 W, shutting down the highway. I felt drained with sadness at the first and devastated at the second. #Shutitdown was a hashtag meant for the highways, but it resonated with my emotions, my body, my self. 

More recently I attended the Million March Artist Movement and was struck by the distinct sensibility of a protest organized by artists. Still fueled by anger, the aim was to harness that anger, use the power of people and art to transform that anger into action. While the general format of the rally was the same as the first one I had attended (a gathering of people on the government plaza listening to speakers), the air felt different. Umbrellas emblazoned with positive messages decked the stairs. There was a station for making signs and a quilt of messages that people could add to. There were postcards with a clear message of demands that we could send to our legislators. The speakers were poets, writers, singers. My anger was lighter. The message had morphed from Hands Up, Don’t Shoot to #shutitdown to #blacklivesmatter. And this was a specific #blacklivesmatter with a People Power Change; Art Powers Change chant.This was a protest that had space for anger, hope, and the seeds of belief. 

Though of course one of the major aims of protests it to be seen and heard by outside forces, (e.g. institutions and people in positions of power), it was clear to me that an important function of protests is also internal. These spaces allow us to channel the feelings and frustration out into the world, not keeping the anger bottled up, unable to go anywhere, eating at us from the inside. It resonated with what I’ve been learning about somatic therapy through another art project I’m involved with, Marcus’ Young’s practice called “Don’t You Feel It Too?.” Somatic therapist Thea Lee talked with us about not only regulating individual nervous systems, but also our collective cultural nervous system. Protests and art are ways of helping us culturally and individually move through feelings, through obstacles, through frustration and injustice. In order not to stay stuck in “fight or flight” and “freeze and dissociation” we need to move. The choreography of each of these protests does something specific for the participants, reshapes us and directs our energy.There is a beauty in bringing art and protest together, infusing them with each other. I want to imagine this fusion as a whole, integral thing. Not dressing the protest up in art, or sticking a protest message into a performance. How can our understanding of how to organize a protest change when it is also art? And how does our understanding of how to make work shift when it is also a protest? 

I have seen clarity and solidarity of the choreography of Hands Up, Don’t Shoot. I have felt the choreography of a die-in and the performance of standing to the sound score of Black youth reciting lines from Maya Angelou’s poem “Like dust, I rise.” We have practiced the dance that is people marching and chanting together and the dance that is stillness, sitting to occupy the Mall of America rotunda. I want to know, what is the dance that we will do next? What can we do to choreograph liberation?

The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

Well, word is getting out and the rumors are starting to fly: “Mad King Thomas is breaking up.” “Mad King Thomas is over.” “Mad King Thomas has died.”

And while it’s true that Mad King Thomas died in our last show, (those of you who came to the Narrator Is Suspect kindly witnessed our elongated death scene), it’s also true that we’re still alive and kicking. (As the audience toasted at the end of the show: The King is Dead; Long Live the King!) Metaphorically we’re not going anywhere, even if physically we’re spreading out across the United States. Monica is about to go to grad school at the end of the summer (either in Boston or Boulder, CO), and Tara will be moving to L.A. in the fall. I’ll be staying in Minneapolis, moonlighting at the karaoke bars singing off-key renditions of “All By Myself” in the style of Celine Dion, which is kind of like moving.

So ultimately, it’s a time of transition. We’re not breaking up, though. We’re doing the long-distance thing, and we’re figuring out what the long-distance thing means. Maybe we’ll keep making stage performances, and we’ll just rack up the frequent flier miles. Or maybe we’ll keep making non-stage performances, and we’ll still rack up frequent flier miles. Maybe we’ll keep making phone dances, and we’ll save ourselves a shit ton of money. Or maybe we’ll focus on dance videos or writing or maybe the traveling will become the performance itself. As Monica-as-circus-ringleader shouts in the beginning of Like a Circus, Only Death, “Anything. Is. Possible!” 

Death has been a reoccurring theme these days. The death scene (which, spoiler alert, occurred in the future) was both an ending and a promise. We are together until our final performance when we are 103 (or 107 if Tara has her druthers), but there is a reason we are re-enacting (future-enacting?) that death now. And there’s a reason that our final toast in The Narrator Is Suspect is becoming the title of our next piece: The King is Dead; Long Live the King.

We’re asking all these questions, talking and writing and going on a retreat to figure some of it out. We decided we should also ask those questions artistically. So we’re making a piece for the April 30th Pleasure Rebel at the Bryant Lake Bowl that incorporates our death, our phoenix-selves rising from the ashes, and lots of left over gold lamé because we also have some unanswered questions about home, and we never feel more at home than when in gold lamé. We hope you’ll join us, that you’ll cheer us on, and that you’ll offer us your hopes and dreams to be burnt together with ours and reshaped from the ashes.

The Narrator is Suspect – an immersive performance experience

Mad King Thomas presents their newest dance: 

The Narrator is Suspect

an immersive home performance

Over the past year and a half, Mad King Thomas has traveled to each of the places they grew up (and then some) on a quest to find out how they became who they are, to experience the culture that shaped them, and, like an awkward boyfriend, to meet the families they grew up in. In the resulting show,  Mad King Thomas leads you through a house sharing stories, lies, semi-religious episodes and decidedly secular cake. 

One part troubled relationship with Ken Burns, one part drunken stories around the Thanksgiving dinner table, three parts unanswerable questions, a smattering of death, intimacy and birthdays, and a dash of post-colonial consideration, The Narrator is Suspect is a performance about how we make home. And what better venue for a show about home than inside other people’s homes?

Your friends, our friends, and generous folks with a sense of adventure are hosting 10 shows throughout the Twin Cities.  Most of these are private, but two shows in the Powderhorn neighborhood are open to the public-at-large. 

 Friday March 28 and Satruday March 29 at 8pm!

Sliding Scale $10-20
Reservations are required as space is extremely limited.

Please e-mail for tickets. Include your name, number of tickets desired, and date of show you wish to attend.  Mad King Thomas will confirm your reservation and send you the address and further details.

Please note: The public shows move through a two-story house; audience must be able to climb a staircase and stand for short periods of time. If you have limitations that do not allow this, or if you have other handicapped-accessible needs, please let us know in your reservation e-mail. We will do our best to accommodate you.

This project has been made possible with generous support from a Jerome Foundation 50 year Anniversary Grant and was developed in part though The Inkub8 Residency Program, funded through John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s KnightArts Challenge Grant.


Dear Dance Community:

Have you heard? LIGHTSEY DARST HAS LEFT MINNEAPOLIS. And by left, I mean, moved away, packed up and gone, high-tailed it out of here, vamoosed, shaboomed, no longer at this address, goodbye, adios, hasta la vista baby, doesn’t live here anymore.

Commence crying.

I can say it 20 different ways, but nothing will change the HUGE HOLE that she is leaving in our community. I am feeling her loss already (though she’s still alive and kicking and presumably will continue writing about dance and art…. just not about us Twin Cities folks anymore.)

Lightsey writes about dance not as an outside “objective” critic, but as an invested maker, as one of us. Her reviews are not just descriptions and analysis of a piece, but also analysis of how that piece fits into the ways she is thinking about dance, as a discipline, as a practice, as a work coming out of this community. Insightful, eloquent, long-winded, and never quite satisfied, Lightsey’s articles are for the thinking-persons of dance. She is a writer who, by writing, is also a creator in the dance world.

Shortly before she left, Lightsey had a residency at the Walker’s library. She presented at the end her time there- a part-reading/part-performance event. She was looking at the act of reading as a dance- the dance we are each experts at, a dance born of practical necessity, comfort, and distraction, a dance our bodies do when we are occupied with the task at hand, when our minds float away. She had the audience become her performers, inviting us to take turns reading from the library of books she had selected, displaying us in five chairs at the front of the room while the rest watched or waited in line.

It was beautiful- an “orchestra of readers” is the vision she described- and so thoroughly contemporary dance. The subtlety of the movement, the pedestrian vocabulary, the meta-engagement. I often think and talk about “reading” a performance, and this was an instance of me reading a performance of reading. It requires a specific kind of attention. Not just watching (like entertainment television or fluffy novels, where everything is given to you), reading requires noticing, digesting, tracking foreshadowing, registering motifs, piecing together narratives, unpacking symbols, and awareness of the greater literary or performative context.

I thought of Hijack, who are often engaged with trying to distract themselves so that a dance can happen. It brought to mind “A Dance for Them,” in Mad King Thomas’ most recent Phone Dances (colon) Dances for the Telephone. We were aiming for a similar sense of subtle pedestrian expertise. When your mind engages elsewhere, your body is free to follow the expert gestures that support your task. A certain elegance can happen when your performers are not trying to perform, are barely even aware that they are performing.

I love how much attention Lightsey has to the craft of dance-making, just as she is invested in and attentive to her craft of writing, and the intersection of the two. Her departure reminds me how much I appreciate the connection between writing and dancing, how much writing shapes my dance-making and dancing shapes my writing. Maybe, just maybe, it will also remind me to write more. Somebody’s got to. Everyone, pick up your pens!

Business Time!

So now that Mad King Thomas is done (not really) with the telephone dances, (and by ‘not really’ I mean, the exhibit has been taken down, but we still have about a half a zillion phone calls to return), you may be asking yourself (and by ‘you’ I mean all of the internet, and by ‘yourself’ I mean the series of tubes that make up the Internet), “HOLY CRAP GUYS, WHAT IS NEXT????”

Well, right now we are in the midst of working on our BUSINESS PLAN. No, not the kind you wear business socks to, but the kind that gives you actual factual steps and plans, a roadmap to your dreams, the unstoppable forward motion towards MONEY, FAME & SUCCESS!

Or you know, just figuring out what the fuck to do with your next five years.

Guys, it’s weird being a business. This perhaps the first thing for us to learn- how to consider this art-making endeavor- which has been mostly unpaid (though oft-supported), hap-hazard, and an act of love and foolishness on our part- to be a business- which usually has to make money or support you or have at least one foot firmly planted in practicality.

The ridiculous thing is, we’ve got all the skills. It’s not like we don’t know how to be highly effective, efficient, get-things-done people. Every time we produce a show, write a grant, make a piece, tour, or teach a workshop, we prove that we are goddamn professionals! Or, if that is a meaningless word (and I think it might be) WE KNOW HOW TO GET SHIT DONE.

It is a testament to the strange culture around the arts (and dance in particular) that despite our mad skillz, we have yet to make a living through performance. This is not unusual, and it’s not only deeply steeped in the culture all around us, but also totally rooted in our own heads. This is the first order of business: tear up the pre-conceptions, dig out the old models, and plant some new ways of doing!

Perhaps this will mean that our art-making itself will have to radically change, or maybe the shift will happen in our way of packaging it, or maybe our belief systems around it, or maybe (likely) all of the above. Maybe our sense of business will change, and we will live like hermits in the woods, eschewing capitalism and subsisting on berries. And that will be our performance art! It’s both exciting and daunting to ask ourselves what we really want, what we value most about what we do, and how to make those things march forward hand in hand, inexorably towards the ever-prized money, fame, and burlap-covered berry-munching hermitude!

Rape Jokes and what’s funny

Okay, I know I’m a few weeks behind here, and that this is old news, but I can’t stop thinking about rape jokes.

Okay, I know this is like years old news. I was telling someone about the Daniel Tosh incident and she was genuinely confused, saying, “Didn’t that happen a couple of years ago?” Why yes, yes, I’m sure it did. Some other dude, some other rape joke. But it’s still happening, so forgive me for still caring.

Mostly I don’t have a lot to say that hasn’t already been said by these two bloggers: Lindy West, of Jezebel, tells us How to Make a Rape Joke and El Guante has a much more succint 3 Points. Basically, (if you don’t feel like reading their blogs, though I reccommend) it comes down to this:

  • Yes, you (comics, men, stupid people, world) can say whatever you want. Yes! But also, yes, we (feminists, women, other men, world) can also say whatever we want. Free speech is a two-way street. Or an all-way messy interchange.
  • It’s not that rape jokes are necessarily bad. BAD rape jokes are bad. Good rape jokes are good! Bad rape jokes blame and belittle the victim and contribute to rape culture. Good rape jokes call attention to rape culture and undermine it.
  • We have a responsibility to work against  rape culture.

Comedy is not sacred! Vulgarity is not sacred! I say this as someone who appears to worship at the altars of comedy and vulgarity. Mad King Thomas is ALL ABOUT humor and vulgarity and pushing out of comfort zones. I personally really and truly love to shock and gross out people.

Here is the thing: humor and boundary-pushing are not sacred- they are tools. They help us illuminate and honor what is sacred. Dare I even try to say what is sacred? I don’t know… Humanity. Love. The incredible joy of being human in this fucked up world. The divinity of life… and death, and everything? Let’s not get too heavy here. These tools help us fight everything that is awful- injustice and inequality and everything that makes the world fucked up. That’s heavy shit.

I hope- and not just idly hope, but hope in way that comes from working towards this goal- that when I and when Mad King Thomas make jokes just for the sake of being vulgar, to push, just to go over-the-top, that we are not contributing to any racist, sexist, classist, homophobic,  hegemonic agenda, and that, for the most part, we are using our flippant sense of humor to actively work towards making the world a better place. Making things more awesome. And that, my friends, is a phrase I can always end with.