Darkly comic, Performa Dance’s ‘The Mad Scene’ skewers our desire for fame


Never known for his modesty, Louis XIV, aka the Sun King, once proclaimed “In my heart I prefer fame above all else, even life itself.”

Louis XIV also happened to a be a super-fan of ballet, himself an enthusiastic dancer (appeared as the Sun god, Apollo in one ballet), performing at his own court. He founded the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661, the world’s first ballet academy, and thus is credited with (famous for) codifying classical ballet as we know today.

Louis IV and his vanity mark the starting point for “The Mad Scene,” a comically absurdist new dance-drama from PerformaDance.

The 80-minute ballet richochets around time periods, from the 17th century court to our current ‘age of the influencer’ times. Dancers – many from Ballet Austin — wear a mash-up of towering powdered wigs and sexy cabaret wear, three-inch false eyelashes, juicy red lipstick. The look is akin to the drag ballroom scene.

The two-act comedic drama spins through a musical mash-up too: Mozart, Bellini, Chopin and also Sister Sledge, Donna Summer, Kraftwerk and Lou Reed. One dancer sings a song by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Performa Dance artistic director Jennifer Hart teamed up with physical theater artist Kelsey Oliver to create 80-minute ballet that’s interspersed with three short video sequences.

“The Mad Scene” skewers our craving for fame, timeless as it is (n.b. Louis IV) but now even more magnified in the digital landscape. Now, everybody can make public their private world — perform their lives for an audience of strangers.

“With the democratization and ubiquity of social media, the collapse of a private world, and the rise of the ‘influencer,’ we all have the opportunity — or misfortune — to realize our 15 minutes of fame,” said Hart.

Oliver plays an emcee/jester of sorts, popping in between scenes to offer commentary, encouraging the audience to cheer, boo or shout out “you’re perfect,” the analog performance equivalent of tapping ‘like’ on social media.

“My character is a verbal guide that’s a little bit menacing, very nonlinear, and most definitely a jokester of interactivity,” Oliver says. “She forces you to chew on the obtuse concept of celebrity throughout the show, and the ways we participate in this raucous game of fame and favor.”

In contrast to ballet tradition, where typically a single choreographer creates and dancers are the human instruments, Hart says “The Mad Scene” is a true collaboration. The dancers fleshed out their characters, helped determine their costumes, and riffed on Hart’s always-impressive choreography that’s charged with fresh, imaginative movement.

“Really, in the program the credit for choreographer should be ‘all of the dancers’,” Hart says.

“The Mad Scene” has been a long time in the making, thanks to the pandemic. But the human desire for attention never went on pause.

“The longing for fame is timeless,” says Hart.

“The Mad Scene” is at 8 p.m. June 10 and 11 at AustinVentures StudioTheater, Ballet Austin, 501 W. Third St. Tickets: performadance.org/the-mad-scene

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is an arts and culture journalist who has covered visual art, performance, film, literature, architecture, and just about any combination thereof. She was the staff arts critic for the Austin American-Statesman for 17 years. Her commendations include the First Place Arts & Culture Criticism Award from the Society for Features Journalism. Additionally, Jeanne Claire has been awarded professional fellowships at USC’s Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and NEA/Columbia University Arts Journalism Institute. In 2022, she was awarded the Rabkin Prize in visual art journalism. Jeanne Claire founded and led Sightlines, a non-profit online arts and culture magazine that reached an annual readership of 600,000. And for two years, she taught arts journalism at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Architecture magazine, Dwell, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Art Papers, and ICON design magazine, among other publications.

Related articles