Dance Theater

Article excerpt

"I was always moving toward theater," says downtown-turned-uptown choreographer Mark Dendy, with the air of someone accustomed to negotiating side roads and switchbacks en route to his destinations. After all, it's not every day that a guy whose resume includes performing in platinum wig and high heels and impersonating both Martha Graham and Vaslav Nijinsky winds up in charge of a Broadway chorus line.

On the other hand, if ever there were a show begging for someone with precisely those credentials, it's Taboo. First presented in London in January 2002, Taboo traces the 1980s transformation of a misfit teenager named George O'Dowd into that international icon of cross-dressing fabulosity, "Boy George." O'Dowd came up with the idea for the show with the director, Christopher Renshaw, and stars not as himself but as the larger-than-life bohemian celebrity Leigh Bowery, who served as his friend and guide through the excesses of London's frenzied 1980s club scene. Using the songs Boy George wrote for his group, Culture Club, Taboo re-creates the heyday of Club Taboo, the scene's hot spot. And playing George is Euan Morton, repeating the role that won him an Olivier nomination in London.

The show's New York production is being overseen by Rosie O'Donnell, who fell for Taboo in London and decided Broadway couldn't do without it. But she thought it needed some spiffing up, so she ordered a new book by Charles Busch (an experienced cross-dresser himself) and new dances from Dendy.

Dendy has no idea what he's replacing because the show's legal advisers forbade him to see the London version. But he feels completely at home in the material, recalling his own arrival in New York as a dance rebel out to change the world.

"When I came here, in the early 1980s, I was wild and I was angry and I was going to destroy the closet of gay choreographers who pretended their dances were about men and women. I was going to have men dancing with men, and everybody in dresses."

To him, Boy George was heroic. "He was such a catalyst--he was out of the closet, doing gender-bending and drag." And, he says, he wasn't alone in his admiration. When he and Boy George took in a downtown performance together during Taboo rehearsals, people kept coming up to them, Dendy recalls. "Not for autographs or to be near a celebrity," he says. "but to say things like, 'Thank you for helping me come out.' "

But Taboo isn't meant strictly for fans of drag acts or Culture Club recordings.

"One of the messages of the show is that those people are real people," Dendy says. "They're not freaks. Taboo is about what belonging means."

One of the things O'Donnell was adamant about, Dendy says, was that the ensemble look like "real people," rather than the ideal types featured in fashion spreads. "That attitude is part of my world," says Dendy. "That's what Bill T. Jones was doing."

He auditioned hundreds of dancers, some recruited in traditional ways, some with "weird, idiosyncratic" ads. The Taboo ensemble he came up with is split between experienced Broadway dancers and those doing their first show. And it does include two "big girls" and an assortment of types that suggest a bunch of superagile subway riders, rather than a carefully matched chorus line.

Although the show has a couple of sequences that allow Dendy to do standard Broadway production numbers, much of the dancing in Taboo is theatricalized club dance. …