By SUSAN BROILI
Right after dendy/donovan projects’ American Dance Festival-commissioned, world premiere “Elvis Everywhere” on July 12 in Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater, my friend said: “That was amazing.”
dendy/donovan projects’ choreographer Mark Dendy, artistic director Stephen Donovan and six accomplished dancers: Chris Bell, London Brison, Colette Krogol, Frankie Lee lll, Matt Reeves and Mei Yamanaka made it so.
Dendy’s extensive research and choreography in collaboration with the dancers informed this work. And, so did Donovan’s video, sound, lighting and costume designs that included the five sequined Elvis outfits, that he also constructed.
This hour-long work opened with a startling sight: five, life-size Elvis figures in lavish, sequined Las Vegas-type outfits. They also sported black, pompadour-style hair and wore sunglasses. They did not move a muscle and my first impression was that they were, indeed, very life-like statues – an illusion broken when one moved a foot and then they all began shifting their feet.
Thus commenced an Elvis show the likes of which may have never been seen before. It was part documentary, part tribute, part live performances as well as a stroll down the memory lane of Elvis hits – 13 in all – that included “Heart Break Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” and “Love Me Tender.”
It also included Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds cover of Elvis’ “In the Ghetto” and the lyrics and the solo performance by a male dancer moved me to tears and was a highlight of this show.
Elvis’ music also sparked other dancers’ movements from the high-energy hip-gyrations and shaking buttocks to “All Shook Up” to Mei Yamanaka’s solo to the ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” In this solo, Yamanaka literally embodies falling in love. Soft as a petal, she settles to the floor, legs bent under her, and just as softly, rises to fall two more times.
Mark Dendy’s performance of an excerpt from his solo in the 1914 “Dystopian Distractions!” also proves a highlight. He’s always had considerable stage presence so when he walks onstage, wearing a U.S. Army uniform and a gas mask and settles into an upholstered chair, the audiences’ anticipation seems palpable.
In this solo, he portrays former U.S. Secretary of Defense General Donald Rumsfeld, as we hear a recorded C-SPAN interview with the real Donald Rumsfeld about the time the General met Elvis in Las Vegas. Dendy had encountered this interview during his Internet research for “Dystopian Distractions” and used it as the sound score for the solo he created based on it. ADF audiences last year saw Dendy perform a longer version of this solo, which had inspired “Elvis Everywhere,” Dendy has said.
In this world premiere on July 12, as Rumsfeld tells his story, Dendy restlessly shifts in his chair while making constant, obsessive and often expansive hand gestures. But one gesture, when he brought his hands together under his chin and wriggled his fingers, drew a question from a woman in the audience at the post-performance talk. “I just wanted to be a bug,” Dendy told the woman.
As Dendy is emoting through gestures, we hear Rumsfeld’s story of how Sammy Davis Jr. had told him: ‘I’m going to take you to see the best singer in Las Vegas.’
“It was Elvis … He was fantastic,” Rumsfeld says. Afterwards, they went to Elvis’ dressing room backstage. “Elvis Presley has me cornered. He’s talking about the U.S. Army. He served in Germany and he wanted to talk about it,” Rumsfeld continued.
Elsewhere in “Elvis Everywhere,” the sound score and video footage, projected on the backdrop, added greatly to this production. Early on, we hear a woman’s voice as she complains about how Elvis moves when he performs. “The pelvis gyration is vulgar, unseemly and downright obscene,” she says. Then, we hear Elvis’ response to such criticism: “I can’t help it. If I stand still, I’m dead.”
We see clips from some of Elvis’ B-movies that Col. Parker had pressured him to do to make more money. Parker’s manipulation of Elvis is also depicted during a live performance during “Elvis Everywhere” as a performer, dressed as Parker in a white suit and white hat, stands near the top of a tall ladder and with a puppeteer device, literally pulls the strings attached to the arms and legs of another performer, portraying Elvis, onstage far below.
And, at the end of “Elvis Everywhere,” Elvis’ tragic decline is made vividly, heartbreakingly clear as we see both young and older images of Elvis, shifting back and forth from one to the other – the young, handsome, physically fit Elvis and the older Elvis, over-weight, his face bloated, eyes bleary as he continues to perform.