Performa Dance’s “The Mad Scene,” conceived and directed by Jennifer Hart, was an absurdist look at fame-obsessed culture. Louis XIV’s court may have been its starting point, but the show freewheeled through time and a seemingly endless number of sequin-filled costume changes, to address the influencer culture that dominates social media.
At Ballet Austin’s AustinVentures Studio Theatre, the show opened with a piece featuring performers in costumes reminiscent of 17th Century court attire, complete with towering powdered wigs and a projected backdrop of Versailles, Louis XIV’s palace. Although the fame-loving ‘Sun King’ was a major ballet enthusiast, and many of the dancers joining Performa for this production also dance for Ballet Austin, the choreography in this intro was neither balletic nor ballroom-esque. Instead, wide squats and rapid hand gestures somewhere between jazz hands and sissy fighting undermined the royals’ glamor.
The tone of “The Mad Scene” veered frequently to the parodic, and the performers’ white powdered faces and brightly rouged cheeks in the 17th-century royal style gave them a clownish appearance that accentuated moments of physical comedy within the choreography.
Loosely structured into a series of dance segments interspersed with transitional scenes, the two-act piece featured Kelsey Oliver as an emcee called “The GuÏde,” whose scenes included pre-recorded video segments that mimicked live streams, a PowerPoint presentation, audience interaction, and more. But the success of these interstitial scenes proved mixed: Following live dance, the wordless videos stalled the show’s momentum.
Ultimately Oliver’s GuÏde severed as a practical hype woman. Between dance segments, she distributed confetti hearts, the equivalent of social media likes, to the dancers according to the volume of the audience’s cheers.
The audience participation extended beyond this cheering-based confetti system. The father of one of the performers, who was seated in the front row, was crowned Louis XIV for the night, given a pink wig, and invited on stage to dance on a catwalk.
The audience was also given a series of approved words to shout out whenever they liked during the performance. These included “Wow,” “Oooh,” “Ahhh,” and “You’re Perfect.” Later on, negative phrases from “Booo” to “Poor Thing” were added into the mix. Although they are common across social media, during the course of the show, it rarely felt natural to shout these phrases. Audience members proved good sports about participating nonetheless. However, inviting the audience to blurt out these phrases had the unfortunate side effect of making any moment of intentionally sustained silence impossible.
Amid all the multimedia features and audience participation, the wide-ranging choreography emerged as the show’s high point. From a danced talk show appearance to movement drawn from burlesque and 1970s disco, each of the dance segments heightened the theme of fame. The choreography expressed a complex range from the burden of parasocial attachment to the perverse attraction of fall-from-grace as spectacle. The GuÏde’s commentary, on the other hand, felt heavy-handed at times, opinionating interpretations of the dances.
The most effective moments of comedy in the show came through dance, as when the white-gloved hands of Ed Carr, associate director of Performa Dance, and Von Rothbart in Ballet Austin’s recent production of “Swan Lake,” expressively flicked out from between the center curtains. Carr then emerged as a variation on the white swan, wearing a tulle ruff rather than a tutu, queering notions of the Prima Donna by performing a spoof of this ballet.
“The Mad Scene” found its heart in the second act. The humanity fame obscures crystallized in an acapella rendition of “Fantasy” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, performed by a dancer in a long cape made of crocheted blankets, who sang directly to the audience. The dancers removed their flashy costumes, and the GuÏde centered the audience’s reflection with a series of “I wonder” statements, imagining a simpler world
The ambitious use of dance, video, projection, dialogue, audience participation, and singing in “The Mad Scene” connected to its overarching theme of spectacle, but many of these ingredients felt still in an experimental phase. Nevertheless, as the production stripped away its own glitz, closing on Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” it returned to the real and vulnerable human desire for connection, mistakenly sought through fame but achievable through community.