Florence Foster Jenkins, speaking of her struggle to be an accomplished artist, once observed that although some people said she couldn’t sing, they could never say she didn’t sing. It’s a moment of dignity and tragedy and accomplishment all in a moment. The same may be said of Stairway to Stardom, the new multi-disciplinary piece from the dignified and talented dance company cakeface led by Amanda Szeglowski, at HERE Arts Center.
Full disclosure, I don’t have a background in dance, so I was a bit concerned that I might not find a personal resonance in dance-theatre. However, as soon as the performance began and I saw videos projected of the original Stairway to Stardom participants (a cable access show from the '80s), I realized that I was in the right place. Essentially, I was home. Full disclosure again, I do have a seriously disabled little brother whom I adore. My mother always told us that our brother’s dignity was always to be respected. We could laugh at times, but not at the trying. The trying was always part of the struggle to maintain his personal dignity. I recall a lot of laughter in my memories of my family and what resonated for me wildly during the performance (smoothly, brilliantly synchronized by the virtuosic young company) was that I was laughing at the struggle for stardom itself, not those who struggle. Indeed the brilliance of this piece of dance-theatre (producing director Kim Whitener generously suggests that we may call it what we wish) is that the dignity of each of the participants of the original Stairway to Stardom is lovingly maintained, all while the deadpan delivery of the text is flawlessly executed. At times hilariously recalling excerpts from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Vogue interviews, it reminds us of the absurdity of the superstars we live with. That these celebrities do not resonate with us, but that Amanda Szeglowski’s stories do, provides a compelling counterpoint that allows the work to succeed on many, many levels.
This is HERE’s 25th Anniversary season and Artistic Director Kristin Marting and Producing Director Kim Whitener suggest in the bill of fare for the evening that as audience members, we may “trust their curation.” What an understatement. With artists like Basil Twist and Taylor Mac in residence over the years, Szeglowski finds herself in excellent company and as members of New York City’s artistic community we not only trust their curation, we depend on it. Szeglowski and all of the members of cakeface -- Ali Castro, Jade Daugherty, Ayesha Jordan and Nola Sporn Smith -- have something special to offer, accomplished dancers/actresses all. We begin to spin possible back stories as we watch them work. Was she a back up dancer for JLo? A Vogue model? The text itself is gleaned from numerous interviews given by Amanda Szeglowski to her friends and fellow artists and it’s delivered to us at times with the company speaking in unison or repeating phrases for emphasis, all the while allowing us to decide for ourselves precisely what it may mean. Find your way to HERE Arts Center and climb the Stairway to Stardom for yourself.