Choreographer/theater artist Mark Dendy in the past has transformed himself into Jerry Lee Lewis, an evangelical Baptist preacher, a transvestite televangelist and a Southern fundamentalist mother with a lesbian daughter. Now, he’s taking on Elvis.
His dance-theater piece, “Elvis Everywhere,” premieres Wednesday at the American Dance Festival, which commissioned the piece.
“I’ve been working on it for a couple of years,” Dendy said in a recent phone interview.
The wild man from Weaverville (just outside of Asheville) is known for his highly athletic dances as well as serving as an amusing social critic and a clever impersonator. He will forego playing Elvis, however, and instead perform a five-minute solo, “Dystopian Distractions,” as part of this larger piece.
The solo is the one that led him to make the full-length “Elvis Everywhere.” Doing internet research, Dendy discovered one of the many strange connections between Elvis and American culture: an interview with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in which he described meeting Elvis in a dressing room backstage. That interview led to the solo piece, which Dendy performs in a gas mask and U.S. Army uniform. He premiered it last summer at ADF.
Dendy said he sees Elvis as a metaphor for American society. The early King of Rock ‘n’ Roll represents the promise of the United States, he said.
“Elvis is this bright, shining star in the beginning who is so talented, so unique in Elvis’s prime,” Dendy said. Then the King goes to Hollywood to be in movies and, according to the choreographer, ends up serving in the U.S. Army as a propaganda tool.
“Then there’s a decline, a very sad, tragic decline,” Dendy noted, talking about “the overweight, drug-addled Elvis.” That is the Elvis he compares to America of today.
Dendy’s latest piece runs for one hour, and he sees it not only as social satire about our country’s politics, but also a tribute to Elvis. It explores as well, he said, “our gruesome fascination with celebrities.”
Celebrities have become like Greek gods to us, Dendy added. “Elvis’s die-hard fans deem him close to a God. It’s like a religion.”
“Elvis is in every country,” he said. “There are female Elvis impersonators. There are Asian impersonators. There’s a fan club in almost every culture in the world.”
Dendy made “Elvis Everywhere” in collaboration with New York actor Stephen Donovan, who created the video projections and is responsible for the sound, costumes, scenery and other props. Donovan plays the Vegas Elvis in the new piece, although Dendy noted, “Everybody plays Elvis, but there’s one guy in particular, London Brison, that plays young Elvis.”
Dendy does admit to doing his own Elvis impersonation – just once.
“I did Elvis in the seventh grade on ’50s day in junior high school,” he said. “I did the young Elvis. I had my jeans turned up in cuffs. I had on a ’50s shirt. I had my hair slicked back.”
“Elvis Everywhere” is set to open as part of New York Live Arts in New York City in May 2018. Dendy is looking at other possible performances in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C, as well as elsewhere. The piece will be shown at Jacob’s Pillow later this summer in August, but Triangle audiences will get to see it first.
Look for Dendy to appear before the show in the lobby of Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater as Elvis’s mother, Gladys, where he will be handing out peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches.
What: “Elvis Everywhere” presented by dendy/donovan projects
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, July 12-13
Where: Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke University, Durham
More: An after-party will be held 9:30 p.m.-midnight on Thursday with Dendy and his dancers at The Tavern on W. Markham Avenue in Durham. There will be an Elvis costume contest, prizes and karaoke.