Jack Ferver’s I Want You to Want Me, presented at the Kitchen by the American Dance Institute, deals in the overlapping nature of the gothic and the queer in classical ballet. As Peter Stoneley contends in “The Queer History of Ballet”, La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Giselle, and even Sleeping Beauty depend on the supernatural and gothic in order to resolve the narrative. Furthermore, Mair Rigby and other scholars propose the history of the gothic tale as frequently queer in it’s manifestations of collective cultural anxieties. In the popular cinema, The Red Shoes and Black Swan also perpetuate ballet’s affiliation with the supernatural, along with a healthy dose of camp and various queer readings. With that being said, I Want You to Want Me arrives with a fertile lineage of history.
I watched the piece with an interest in Ferver’s use of camp and curiosity regarding use of text and choreographic structure. Stylistically, the piece depends on an overt self-aware theatricality that Ferver and his cadre of excellent performers (Reid Bartelme, Barton Cowperthwaite, and Carling Talcott-Steenstra) deliver with unbridled glee. I Want You to Want Me succeeds in both lampooning and honoring the conventions of ballet as well as historical and contemporary narratives of the ballet dancer’s plight.
This narrative finds an American ballerina (Talcott-Steenstra) making her way into the European company of Madame M (Ferver) and her sidekick (Bartelme) where she encounters a hunky love interest (Cowperthwaite). As with most gothic tales, love leads to horror and eventually a few dead bodies.
Mr. Ferver’s portrayal of Madame X relies heavily on quotes from Martha Graham (“we have so little time to be born to the instant” and others) which I found interesting. While Graham certainly holds the dramatic flair and over-the-top tendencies to serve Mr. Ferver, her status as an American (Madame X is also American) renders her outside the lineage of classical ballet. Perhaps that’s part of the joke. Madame X speaks in hilarious pronouncements and ridiculous French. She’s certainly a diva, but not really a ballet dancer, not really European, and…played by a man.
The actual choreographic material depends heavily on balletic quotes. I recognized a few references to Balanchine (a grande battement into a hinged lunge with pelvis jutting forward and the arch of the foot exposed) which I also find curious as Balanchine worked mainly in a form of ballet modernism that avoided narrative and the supernatural. The costumes (gorgeous use of shape and fabric by Reid and Harriet Design) also play out in black and white, which Balanchine frequently employed. Madame X does end up in a white variation with a glittering red appliqué on a shoulder when things get nasty at the end. The plot adheres to the tragic ending, yet Ferver subverts this through an insidiously celebratory duet for himself and Bartelme danced to Arca’s hypnotic “Sever”.
Find Brian Siebert’s (one of my favorite dance critics) thoughts in NYTimes here: I Want You to Want Me