Melanie Stewart's "Kill Me Now' at Live Arts Festival

'They Shoot Horses' meets 'The Gong Show'

Talented actors as untalented dancers.
Talented actors as untalented dancers.

Great art investigates the contradictions in our lives and in the institutions we create. Perhaps the fiercest collision of opposing forces appears when art investigates the atavistic animal within us. The human species has evolved emotionally and rationally to create civilizations unimagined in the past, but it still preserves, often in unadulterated neural form, the legacy of our species from its earliest days on earth. Last month's Shakespeare in the Park production of Euripedes's The Bacchae in New York reminded us that the naked savagery of Dionysus still lurks within the rational system we've enshrined today as human government.

Seizing on the popular culture mania of dance contest shows and reality TV ("Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance"), and perhaps with more than a nod to the Depression-era novel later made into Sidney Pollack's 1969 film, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, the stalwart dance-theater director and choreographer Melanie Stewart and writer John Clancey use this phenomenon as metaphor in Kill Me Now to examine the role of competition in our society and in capitalism. By enlisting the audience as co-conspirators in the sadistic competitive game fueled by the show, they ask the audience to examine the animal within us and in the society we shape.

The ultimate irony

Ironically, Kill Me Now appears in a 2009 Live Arts Festival that itself includes (for the first time) a real dance contest: the A.W.A.R.D Show, in which 12 choreographers compete in a four-night tournament (Sept. 15-19) for a $10,000 prize, courtesy of the Boeing aircraft company. (Past national performance funder Phillip Morris, whose products kill people from within, seems to have been replaced by a new corporation that kills from above.) Kill Me Now will clearly complicate attendance at the A.W.A.R.D. Show, as it should (especially when Melanie Stewart plays contest host at one show).

Kill Me Now brings on an array of high-energy, in-your-face performers who play the roles of over-the-top contestants with underwhelming talent. With a fine devilish twist, Stewart and Clancey turn the judged into judges when contestants are voted off by shouted audience votes, a process that's deliberately rigged. The contest is hosted by a fierce and imperious TV tyrant, Catherine Gillard, an outstanding actor who effectively manipulated her audience as well as the dance contestants.

Inside jokes

The cast of consummate dance theater performers— Bethanie Formica, Scott McPheeters, Janet Pilla, Megan Mazarick, Les Rivera and Karl Schappell— defined their dual characters well, and broke through the audience's passivity to win acclaim or shame. Because these were all professional dancers, they had a field day with inside jibes about dance. Gillard, for example, decried an inferior performance as "a dance that was still inside you— we don't want an inner dance." The pitiful character Kim McDougle, played by Karl Schappell, lamely protests, "I am a dancer who dances for dancers." These high-velocity, largely one-dimensional characterizations have their obvious limits.

The resolution of the production occurs when the winner (Megan Mazarick as Tina Marina on my night) is told that there is no prize, no point and that all she has won is pain and humiliation. The conclusion soon turns into a too didactic, forced ending with a weak confessional and pistol-shot demise.

Shaking up the audience

Kill Me Now left me mulling the issues of audience (that is, societal) complicity and critical self-awareness, something that struck me during Jerome Bel's performance of The Show Must Go On in last year's Festival, where Bel, too, sought inventively to undo the traditional role of the passive audience. During one of the numbers in the Bel work (in which I performed), the Police song, "Every breath you take, Every move you make, I'll be watching you," led half the audience to dance in their seats to its rock rhythms, while others, tuning in to the scary, stalker lyrics and feeling the cold gaze of performers lined up at the lip of the stage, felt the fright and shared the embarrassment of fellow audience people not tuning in to the lyrics but rather the seductive music.

This mirrored my experience as a member of the Kill Me Now audience— feeling conflicted about the sadism on stage even as most people in the audience got into it. (I didn't vote then, and will continue to abstain at the A.W.A.R.D. Shows.) We're all capable of these dual responses; and compelling art, like Kill Me Now, forces us to confront ourselves as complex creatures of the animal kingdom.♦

To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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