Bear Feet in High Heels
Twisting gender and class in the Effervescent Collective's subversively entertaining Dirty Dancing
From the moment you enter the Annex Theatre, it's clear that you're not going to see a straight-forward take on Dirty Dancing, the 1987 romance between an upper-class Jewish girl and a dance instructor at a Catskills resort in the early '60s. Onstage, a live band performs Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' doo-wop "Stay" while a bearded bear of a Baby in a sleeveless Crass T-shirt giggles demurely as the plaid shirt-clad woman playing Johnny tries to teach him to dance. The Babyettes dance in the background. And the all-female staff dancers suggest that, perhaps, Kellerman's resort is a lesbian haven where Johnny and Baby's hetero relationship is an aberration--or a place where gender doesn't exist at all. Welcome to Effervescent Collective's Dirty Dancing, and while it has all--if not more--of the giddy fun of the original, it also subversively plays with gender and class.
Effervescent Collective was started in 2007 by Lily Susskind, a Goucher College political-anthropology student who wanted to explore dance outside the confines of the school's dance department. Along with a group of like-minded dancers, they did dances that explored issues of race as dancers moved in an 8-foot-squared Plexiglas room set up in the middle of a quad or commented on how observation changes the observed in a performance in a mid-construction building on campus. Since graduating last May, Susskind and her fellow dancers have had to find a way to expand the reach of their project from an academic setting with a built-in audience, resources, and funding.
It's a challenge in a city that sees dance as either shaking it in a club or a fine art with little in between. The group has done some shows and collaborations with local musicians such as Andrew Bernstein, the Polygons, and Shodekeh, but Dirty Dancing sounded like the perfect way to introduce Effervescent to a wider audience to. "People see Dirty Dancing and they know what that is," Susskind says. "We try to title things and make our images accessible but ultimately dance is terrifying to people."
"Terrifying" may be a strong word, but you can understand where she's coming from. Everybody dances, whether at a music show or in their bedroom, but once it comes to watching dance performance, people often assume it's beyond their interest or understanding. "So with Dirty Dancing, it was a chance to say, You, audience, you're good enough to come to this and have an opinion," Susskind says.
The show's initial idea came from a more practical place. "I was watching the movie and I was inspired just because of the costumes in the film," says Claire Cote, an Effervescent co-founder and Dirty's director and co-choreographer. "I found a really uncanny similarity to, like, today's hipster fashion."
Susskind, who is the producer, assistant director, and co-choreographer, was easily sold on the idea. Not only was it "a hipster's paradise" to costume, but it was a chance to comment on the dance movies she had grown up with--Dirty Dancing, Save the Last Dance, and Step Up.
"They're all the same plot," Susskind says.
Cote agrees. "The main characters are usually a privileged upper-class girl who's not comfortable with dancing or she's trained in just ballet," Cote adds. "And then, she meets this guy who comes from a lower-class background, from the streets. He's really streetwise, and he basically shows her how to dance and move her body freely and it's usually a sexual awakening. So we were really interested in how gender and class are huge factors in these dance movies."
Having a man play Baby and a woman play Johnny complimented that goal, but it wasn't something Cote and Susskind set out to do. Savannah Reich and Jake Dibeler read together during the audition and had great chemistry. And at one point, they switched roles and it just clicked.
"I was kind of hoping I'd be Baby," admits Dibeler, a MICA student, who does performance art. "It goes along with the aesthetic of Baltimore having tranny leads."
Directing was a new experience for Susskind and Cote, who had both done plenty of choreographing but had never really told people how to act before. "They have such a wonderful sense of the physical," Reich says of her directors. Reich has a theater background but, like Dibeler, little formal dance experience. "The notes will be about how to hold your shoulders. A theater director would talk to you about your motivation and I'm finding it really refreshing to not talk about that, to really work from the outside in."
Susskind and Cote credit their understanding of theater to working with Aran Keating when he directed the rock opera Gründelhämmer, which both women danced in. Keating's band, the Motorettes, provides the live music for Dirty Dancing.
The play is at once very faithful to the movie and also quite original, not only in the gender bending but in the way dance is used and seen. Three woman called the Babyettes dance behind Baby at all times, acting out her inner dancer that Johnny is trying to unleash. And while the dance routines borrow from the movie and partner dancing, they do so through a uniquely Effervescent lens.
"What's great about putting it on stage, too, is you have to dance to the whole song and I can see your entire body," Susskind says. "It's not like a close up of your belly button for 10 minutes. There's actual choreography. You see how people interact. You see their muscles working. You see them sweat. On one hand, we're making fun of Dirty Dancing because we're satirizing it and pointing out some of the stuff it conditions us to think about. On the other hand, it's like, You know what? That shit's hard."
The members of Effervescent Collective aren't afraid of hard work. That's clear from the focus they maintain while rehearsing the show and the clarity of vision Susskind displays when talking about integrating dance into Baltimore's arts, whether it's pairing dance with live music at shows, putting on Load of Dance this April at Load of Fun, or the community classes she plans on offering. Susskind says she wants to take dance and "connect it with the wacky arts scene that we're excited about and be like, 'Hey art students, dance is an art, too.'"
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