Nicholas Leichter Dance- photo by Tom Caravaglia
Think of a mirror, looking at a mirror, looking at a mirror. At each reflection, the images are slightly askew, and seem to lead into odder and odder territory.
Infinite regression is at the center of Nicholas Leichter's The Whiz. The image being reflected – and skewed – is L. Frank Baum's 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in its many pop culture permutations: from populist allegory about the gold standard to benign children's classic, gay-friendly Judy Garland-and-friends Technicolor phenomenon and up through the Michael Jackson and Diana Ross reboot. There's even a touch of Wicked's "Defying Gravity" anthem where Elphaba sings I'm through with playing by the rules. This is a version of the Wizard of Oz aware that it's hardly the first reconsideration of the story and probably won't be the last. In Leichter's take on the Wizard of Oz the Wizard's artifice is revealed as a quality that, if you look closely, draws on unrecognized stores of heart, brains and courage.
The Whiz was one of the musical retreads first suggested by the producers of Dance Now, where dancers take over the tiny cabaret venue of Joe's Pub in New York City. Other works in this iconoclastic series include Doug Elkins' Fraulein Maria and the work by David Parker and the Bang Group based on Annie Get Your Gun. Originally a project for three performers, the Whiz has retained many traces of its cabaret origins as it has grown and morphed to the evening-long piece being presented at the Bates Dance Festival tonight. In each community where Nicholas Leichter Dance tours with the work, the choreographer adds a subtitle: past subtitles have included "Moneyapolis" in Minneapolis/St. Paul and "Obamaland" at home in New York. He also inserts new twists, local flavor and private jokes for the members of his company to enjoy among themselves.
As Leichter explains it, every version of the Wizard of Oz, from the original L. Frank Baum novel to his own work, speaks to ideas of hope, fantasy and dreams during times of major political, economic and cultural change…The idea that this "wizard" is some sort of God who will make all our dreams come true and bring wealth and prosperity to those desperately in need is really just a "fantasy."
Yet in some sense, don't all art-makers traffic in fantasy? Leichter's funk-infused The Whiz is an over-the-top meditation on fantasy and its close relation, celebrity. As an ambitious artist, Leichter seems keenly aware of how celebrity is constructed and rewarded in American culture. Much of his work has been a meditation on the celebrity of Michael Jackson – as a dancer, musician, music video icon and grotesque/tragic tabloid staple. In The Whiz and in a related work, Killa, Leichter weaves snippets of Jackson choreography into his own language, flavoring the blend of hip hop and house dancing he has created for his athletic young ensemble with '70s and '80s funk. The Whiz is presided over by drag queen and self-declared "Messiah of the Funk" Monstah Black. Black sometimes croons to The Whiz's revamped, augmented Charlie Smalls score as master of ceremonies and at other times controls the mike and a water pistol as a Cowardly Lion wearing furry epaulets.
Monstah Black once described one of his own art projects saying: I imagine it resembling Fela Kuti meets Sylvester while sipping champagne with Prince and Grace Jones in a lounge on the bottom of the ocean. As Leichter told critic Susan Yung, Monstah "taught me that dance is theater, theater is music, music is fashion, fashion is drag, drag is performance, performance is movement." Transgressive and fun, challenging and completely harmless, Monstah Black has often been described as Nicholas Leichter's muse. His genre-and-gender bending performances comprise a key element of Leichter's choreographic intelligence.
In the much-loved 1939 film, audiences learn that while the Wizard of Oz may be a fraud, all the apparatus around him –the yellow brick road, the buffing and shining, the unexpected friendship and solidarity among the pilgrims – is very real. So, too, with The Whiz: Monstah's hipper-than-thou trickster figure may not have much power at the end of the day, but his unapologetic freedom of expression is something Leichter can adopt, envy -- and to which he can aspire. Maybe that's true for all the rest of us, too. Because, ultimately, a refracting mirror can only show what we've put in front of it, and what we've been looking at all along.
© 2011 Debra Cash