Mark Dendy creates a ritual for Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Mark Dendy talks about Ritual Cyclical, his new site-specific dance for Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Mark Dendy Dance & Theater, Lincoln Center Out of Doors 2013.

Mark Dendy Dance & Theater, Lincoln Center Out of Doors 2013. Photograph: Monica Barco

Choreographer Mark Dendy talks about his new site-specific work, Ritual Cyclical. The premiere features 80 dancers and takes place at the Hearst Plaza as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Initially a member of Martha Graham's second company, Dendy was part of the downtown scene before working on Broadway. Ritual Cyclical marks the 80th anniversary of the American Dance Festival, the 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet and a new beginning for Dendy.

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After spending nearly a decade working on Broadway, beginning with Taboo, the choreographer Mark Dendy—fed up with the commercial-theater world—decided to change his life. His new approach is magnified in Ritual Cyclical, a site-specific production featuring 80-odd dancers set to music by the Kronos Quartet. Part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the production takes over Hearst Plaza to create a ritual for our day, featuring a wide range of dancers—including K.J. Holmes, Michelle Boulé and Antonio Ramos. The piece also marks the 80th anniversary of the American Dance Festival. Dendy spoke about his fresh outlook.

Time Out New York: What is the history of this project?
Mark Dendy:
I started doing site-specific work years ago with Ruby Shang, and I’ve always made one every now and then. In about 2009, I decided I wanted to start doing more site-specific works—it has to do with the notion of [performing in a] public space inherently being a political act, and occupying that with movement and making it accessible to everyone. I was making one in Durham at the American Dance Festival in 2009 when a woman walked by with her child and said, “Excuse me, my daughter is watching you and she said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ How do we get her involved in this?” The kid was, like, nine years old, and she was bugging her mother to talk to me. And this is a girl who wouldn’t step into that world if she hadn’t seen that. It got me back into thinking about arts in the schools when I was a kid in fifth grade in the South, and how these mimes came to our school, and I was like, I want to do that. So I decided to start doing these regularly in new places and old places. I did one in a tobacco factory in Durham; the next summer, we opened the DPAC [Durham Performing Arts Center]. I reopened the North Carolina Museum of Art. I’ve done one in Seattle. I’ve done a couple at Bates over the years, and I wanted to do one in New York. Jodee [Nimerichter] was like, “I want ADF to start having a New York presence, and what would you do?” I said, “Well, I love that Hearst Plaza and I know Bill Bragin, so why don’t we do something together?” I really hadn’t taken a good look at it since it had been redone. That big green and the 30 trees…

Time Out New York: It’s pretty, right?
Mark Dendy:
It’s really beautiful, and it lends itself to movement. I saw those corrugated cement things that come out of the side of the Met, and I was just like, Wall Street people belong in there being smashed up by concrete. [Laughs] Bill said, “We have this Kronos anniversary too, in addition to ADF’s 80th,” so thought, I’ll do 80 dancers and I’ll use 40 pieces of Kronos music. That didn’t turn out—what could fit into an hour? But I listened to the Kronos Quartet’s entire catalog over a period of three months, and this scenario just kind of came about constructing a ritual for the city and our time, and for it to start at the water. I want to have demigods up on that green and who would those be? K.J. Holmes and Michelle Boulé—elemental archetypes. I got this idea that I should put some National Guard people in there because they’re such a part of our lives now. I’m hoping that you don’t even know they’re in the piece at the beginning. If I can pull that off, it’ll be nice.

Time Out New York: They aren’t real National Guard people, are they?
Mark Dendy:
No, dancers. I roomed with a vet a couple of years back in a hospital situation, and this guy was just shattered. I was like, How can I ever complain about anything? To see these kids that wanted to get an education because they come from middle-class or working-class families—they had no idea that they were going to end up over there not even trained to do the job. So that really touched me, and when I was listening to the catalog, there was a Charles Ives piece from 1917 called “They Are There!” It was a soldier’s song from World War I that [Ives] revised for World War II. He rewrote some of the lyrics and recorded it in the ’40s at his piano—like kind of old and bedraggled and yelping it out with slurred words. Kronos took it and put their strings on top of it, and it’s just eerie and freaky, but it was originally, like, a real pep song for the boys. I’m using that in the finale. And they recorded Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” on the night that Bush invaded Iraq. It’s live. So I want to use that. The finale gets a little heavy. It’s on a stage; there’s a 12-minute finale and 45 minutes in the site, so I’m ending it with that and with a piece called “Elvis Everywhere,” which is a tongue-in-cheek, really sardonic thing about celebrity culture; they take all of Elvis’s most famous sayings like, “Thank you very much” and “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen” and deconstruct them. There are three different voices as they’re whacking away at the violins. Then I took some [Philip] Glass and more traditional pieces. They have a real international breadth to their work as well—Latino, Indian-inspired, Turkish stuff. I’m using a lot of that and pulling out different things in different areas.
I decided, at 50, that I was going to start doing what I wanted to do and just forget about success and popularity. How can I be relevant? How can I be a part of, or at least try to do something, in a world that’s spinning out of control? And not just be like, How did it end up, all of a sudden, that I’m only doing the Rockettes? How did that happen? I didn’t even come here for that. I think those are 50-year-old questions. One day, I was crying, and my shrink was like, “I think you have the answer.” I was like, “There’s that whole thing, and the ego wants to be fed and I want to go into Bloomingdale’s and buy a $750 sweater sometimes!” She’s like, “I think we have the answer.” [Laughs] And I was like, “I think we do have the answer.” So I’m just back to doing what I want to do.

Time Out New York: That’s fantastic.
Mark Dendy:
I do opera sometimes, and I love that because it’s mythic and big. I read somewhere, “If you chase two dogs, you won’t catch either one of them.” I was like, I’m chasing two dogs and one of them’s a hellhound. [Laughs] I might as well let him go and go back to the mutt that loves me.

Time Out New York: What is the hellhound?
Mark Dendy:
Broadway. Entertainment. Some people can tame a hellhound. I couldn’t.

Time Out New York: Most people can’t. 
Mark Dendy:
It’s hard. It’s insanity to ask somebody to work six days a week with one day off and to be creative and to put something together in six weeks. I’ve been working on this piece for a year, and it’s been such a relief. We went out to Silo [at Kirkland Farm], and made a lot of it on that farm—it’s Robin Staff’s [artist retreat], but Gelsey was born there. That’s the Kirkland part of it. Robin and her husband bought it, and she runs DanceNow out of there. I adopted a little puppy that she brought me.

Time Out New York: How are you dealing with ritual in the piece?
Mark Dendy:
We don’t have a lot of meaningful ritual, and people don’t go out and get it. It’s either superspectacle, like [for a] football stadium, or rock & roll. Or it’s attached to religious dogma or it’s all about, in its most ancient sense, the conformity of the tribe. How do you do new ritual? You have to celebrate the individual and do the collective. We’re disconnected from the earth and because of technology we’re spread so horizontally, but we’re not connected vertically. We’re losing that vertical connection. I’ve been reading a lot of Jeremy Rifkin, and he talks a lot about how you have to go down to go out; otherwise, you don’t have a root. That’s been weighing a lot on my mind.

Time Out New York: How do you celebrate the individual while honoring the collective?
Mark Dendy:
I’ve worked in so many different idioms over the years—Pooh Kaye, Martha Graham, improvisation, performative stuff and ballet, so I’m going to celebrate some of the different styles. I’m taking some Ailey dancers, I’m taking some Ballet Hispanico dancers, I’m using some real movers and shakers of what my proclivity is—authentic movement and more release stuff. There’s a lot of unison, a lot of repetition and rhythm; that’s the collective part of ritual, and then I’m finding space for the individuals to come out. I’m following one story of a boy; at one point, the National Guard comes to the edge of the pool and takes him away. And when we next see him onstage, he’s been changed into a National Guard. We’ll see if it works. You know, I bash all that stuff I did uptown, but I learned a lot about theatricality and storytelling. I have seven core people and nine guests. The seven people will each know a section so when the 80 people come on site, they will each teach one of the sections, and then they will each be in one of the sections leading it and those seven people are also in the finale with the guests. The guests are interspersed in different places, with some surprises.

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