Dance therapy with Jack Ferver
The elevator doors open on the seventh floor of the newly revamped Museum of Art and Design and Jack Ferver is up on the balls of his black socks in a position he calls "releve," but Wendy Williams calls "Barbie feet." As if this isn’t jarring enough, Michelle Mola, his partner for this piece, is crouched behind him with her arms raised up into a jazz-hands halo that flutters around Ferver’s short dark hair.
This was last fall. I was meeting with Ferver, the New York-based choreographer, writer, performer and teacher who was rehearsing his latest work, "Me, Michelle" for its premiere at Performa 11, the New Visual Arts Performance Biennial at the Columbus Circle museum. I have to add it’s a little much, but then so is Ferver’s take on the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. But while everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Beyonce has floundered under the gold-encrusted accessories of Cleopatra, Ferver hopes to soar like Isis without so much as the aid of a little Egyptian eye in "a piece that eventually circles back to become just as much about its creators as its subject."
"You get off that elevator and there’s nowhere to go," Ferver explained of the venue, "but the thing that’s great about this stage in terms of the narrative is the idea of Cleopatra in a mausoleum at the end. She constructed this mausoleum when Alexandria was overtaken and locked herself inside of it so they couldn’t get to her, but she could see what was going on."
He motioned to the two windows overlooking the upended hamster wheel that is Columbus Circle and suddenly we’re not in Alexandria anymore. "I might close that curtain," he mused, appearing to think out loud, "but I think it might be beautiful with all that light out there and the cabs."
He explained the piece will be floor-lit, which he hoped will "suggest iconography and gesture and hieroglyphs." Taking a beat, he added, "I can’t paint on these walls. I can’t draw on them. I’m in an institutional setting."
With its insistence on psychology and peeling back the psychic layers to one’s barest self, Ferver’s work is perhaps best suited for an institution. The word he uses to describe himself most often is "therapized."
Consider the piece he showed last year at PS 122 called "Rumble Ghost", which began as a rumination on the 1982 film "Poltergeist," but eventually gave way to Ferver’s seven member troupe whittling away their own psyches in a rigorous and very "sleep-away Drama Camp" therapy technique known as Psychodrama, which Ferver actually practiced in researching the piece.
Or his performance "A Movie Star Needs A Movie," which premiered at the New Museum in 2009 and was reprised at last year’s American Realness Festival. This work projected super-sized images of both himself and another frequent female collaborator, Liz Santoro, on the walls of the museum’s basement before finally devolving into a staged Q&A in which Ferver is propositioned by an audience member.
This week he premieres his follow-up to "Me, Michelle," titled "Two Alike," which he’s currently rehearsing in collaboration with visual artist Mark Swanson for its debut at The Kitchen.
The collaborative piece has been described in a press release as "a meditative and visceral performance exploring the shattering effects of abused queer youth. Existing in an alter-space housing childhood fantasies and turbid adult obsessions, Ferver acts as the emotive flesh and voice inside of Swanson’s eerie mirrored set/sculpture. The performance twists and turns between past and present, with text ranging from pastoral prose to the jarringly confessional, and haunting choreography built from interviews between the two artists, improvisation, and states of trance..."
On ’Strangers with Candy’
In reviewing the piece last fall at its Houston premiere, critic Theodore Bale wrote on the website Texas, a Concept: "It is a significant work and the most intriguing dance piece I have seen here since DiverseWorks presented Yasuko Yokoshi’s ’Tyler, Tyler’ last year around this time... In the end, however, it is a mysterious, beautiful, angry and violent work with perplexing sculptural sets by Swanson and a murky sound-scape by Roarke Menzies."
Ferver says the piece is about his childhood in rural Wisconsin--a town of 2,500, which he describes as "Like ’Boys Don’t Cry’ without the funny parts." He labels the piece as "pastoral," but is belabored by the suggestion that perhaps it could do without the traumatic childhood rape.
Even his more commercial work--for lack of a better term--including Jimmy Tickles on "Strangers with Candy" and his Elizabethan, "Berries and Cream"-obsessed "Little Lad" for the candy Starburst maps what could be understated as the fractured psyche.
And while Ferver naturally gravitates toward the female characters--upon hearing his piece "Me, Michelle" was a duet with Mola about Cleopatra, I had no doubt about who would be portraying the Egyptian queen--it would be a mistake to wait for Ferver to prance onto the stage in a headdress.
In a nod to his early Martha Graham training and her axiom "dress the women and undress the men," Ferver is much more likely to disrobe on stage than pile on tons of wardrobe, hair and makeup.
"I was young," Ferver explains of his Graham awakening at age 13, "I was deep into my teen angst. I was still in Wisconsin. I was always kind of witchy and wore crystals and black. People hated me, but I started studying theater in Madison. I really latched on."
Ben Pryor, who is on his third year curating and producing the American Realness festival where the choreographer was seen last in New York, calls both Ferver and another frequent Realness contributor, Trajal Harrell "drag-less women. Damned and desperate." (To read EDGE’s profile on Trajal Harrell, click here.)
"Jack’s work has always been reflexive," Pryor continues, "a step outside himself, or herself as the case is with ’Me, Michelle,’ in which he slides and snaps between portraying Queen Cleopatra and himself."
Working with realness
Pryor compares it to another work he presented at American Realness, Harrell’s "Antigone Jr.," whom he calls "another strong tragic female character who finds herself in her tale of a torn house at the collision of voguing balls and postmodern dance fashion houses."
I’m happy to have Pryor provide some context for Ferver’s work within the current performance art landscape. When Ferver is faced with the same task of delineating his work from the dizzying schedule of a hundred other artists packed into the 2011 Performa 11, a three week international performance art biennial that began in 2004 now in its fourth iteration, he simply says, "You only have to worry about seeing my show."
Indeed, that myopia is part and parcel of performance art and swings both ways as the curators of Performa don’t have much of a beat on what Ferver is up to either. At a press conference for the festival, a curator tells me that Ferver is working on a piece about the history of nightclubbing in New York City. Mere weeks away from his curtain going up on "Me, Michelle," Ferver is incredulous. "What did they say I was doing?" he asks. "They were talking about Jack Ferver?"
But it’s not like the nightclubbing rumor is completely without basis either. Ferver mentions living, at some point, in Merce Cunningham vet Jonah Bokaer’s Brooklyn hothouse arts complex called Chez Bushwick. Who knew that was even an option? He places his move to New York City when he was 18 years old as vaguely "Y2K-ish," arriving just before our century’s first non-event. He mentions nightlife fixtures Richie Rich and Sophia Lamar as landmarks on his after-dark timeline and we immediately fall into gossiping about whether or not Lamar is getting all Candace Bushnell and dating a New York City Ballet dancer. "I was definitely under age and I was going out," is how Ferver sums his misspent youth. "It was very, ’Who is that child?’" Pryor, whose tbspMGMT management company develops and presents many of the American Realness artists throughout the rest of the year, is a bit more firmly entrenched than Performa’s Goldberg.
He goes on to detail some slippage in Ferver’s "First do no harm" approach to his Museum of Art and Design venue. "The night I was there," Pryor remembers of Ferver’s Performa gig, "he broke through the drywall. For American Realness, he is in a tiny, gray
brick ’black-box.’ I am sure he will make use of their differences. He is no stranger to working with realness."
Back to the furniture
And it’s true, but Ferver’s realness also comes from a very male place. As he’s rolling around on the floor of the Museum of Art and Design with Mola, working out some last minute blocking, he positions her body atop his before cautioning her "not to knee me in my fucking pussy."
But moments later he’s on top of her and pinning her head to the floor, his elbows all over her long hair. It’s a painful moment, and one that’s probably playing out of fraternity row right now. Mola and I both realize it, but Ferver is clueless until Mola pushes him off, moaning, "You’re on my hair!"
Fever gets up and takes a step back. "I don’t think that’s a great idea," he surmises. "It’s too imbalanced. It’s too ’beat up the little girl’."
With that, the little girl also rises and they both face a wall that’s floated between the space’s two floor-to-ceiling windows. They both stare at the wall.
Finally, Mola says, "I feel like it’s sucking us in." She takes a few steps away from it and pulls Ferver towards her. They run the phrase again and suddenly it works. Mola eyes the wall again. "It’s like furniture," she says, "always three feet away from the wall."
And with Ferver, it always comes back to furniture, particularly the couch. He’s even able to define his choreographic career by its years-long psychic break.
"I choreographed my first piece when I was 21," he says, "but it terrified me so much emotionally that I went off and did acting and performance and didn’t really return to choreography until 2007."
What’s the goal?
So what is the end goal of all his therapizing? Healing that rupture? A cure?
"The thesis of this piece is that ego backed by power eventually can do the narcissistic flip into annihilation," Ferver explains. "I’ve witnessed that on the micro level with friends and personal dynamics to the macro level and someone like Alexander McQueen. You go so far in and then the in takes you down."
Still, Ferver is not in any immediate danger. "After 30, I started to get kind of bored of my drama," he admits. "I have to be at this residency at 9am. I need to sleep at night. I can’t be up at 2am playing P.J. Harvey and dancing in front of my mirror." He laughs, but the hope of a cure still hangs in the air.
"I don’t like work about hope," he says finally. "I don’t believe in hope. Hope is violent. But I think you can take hope and turn it into relief. There can be a sense of relief that I’m human. I can only do so much..."
He takes a final pause. "I feel like I’ve gone very tangential in a very Buddhist slash Western therapy kind of a way," he laughs. "I’m giving you a little bit of Freud, a little bit of Buddha and a little bit of ’just calm down.’"
"Two Alike" performs at The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, Manhattan from May 17-19 at 8pm. Tickets are $15 and available at http://www.thekitchen.org.