The UpStairs Lounge & The Return of Narrative Dance

By Ann Glaviano

The estimable Mr. B once noted, “It might be a good idea to call all ballets Swan Lake. That way, people will come!”

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Mr. B is more commonly known as George Balanchine—the Russian emigré who founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 and New York City Ballet in 1948, where he developed and refined a new style of ballet known as “neoclassical.” Balanchine’s Swan Lake snark is borne of his predilection as a choreographer for abstraction. Swan Lake, like other repertory stalwarts Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Giselle, and Don Quixote (among many, many others), is a story ballet, so called because its goal is narrative: to tell a story with characters and a clear plot. All of these wildly popular ballets are from the 19th century; indeed, most Romantic and Classical ballets from the 19th century were story ballets. Enter Balanchine, with more interest in mood than story, in dance for movement’s sake. He stripped his work of cumbersome pantomime and plot devices. His famous early ballet Serenade was just “a dance in the moonlight.” His retort, to those who asked for more narratorial specifics, was “a boy and a girl on the stage—how much story do you want?”

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Over time, Balanchine’s radical abstract approach became the choreographic norm; by the end of the 20th century, most new works were similarly abstract. The 19th-century story ballets persisted in the repertory because audiences loved them and they generated reliable ticket sales, but to produce a new story ballet seemed out of touch, pandering, maybe even a little corny. The few choreographers who elected to work in the story-ballet genre tended to rely on narratives familiar to the modern audience (Cinderella, Dracula, Romeo and Juliet, The Tales of Beatrix Potter). The reason behind this is straightforward: dance is in many ways an inefficient form for narration. With only gesture and music traditionally at their disposal, dance-makers must tell stories using broad strokes. Though great dancers must always be great actors, narrative nuance can be hard to come by. Performers rely on the audience’s previous familiarity with the stories to get across complicated plot points.

But despite these difficulties—and perhaps inevitably, as the pendulum swings—choreographers today are seriously reconsidering the deployment of narrative in dance, more than sixty years out of vogue. Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet, built his reputation in part by choreographing abstract works, but it was his full-length story ballet, Marie (about Marie Antoinette), that he presented to New Orleans in 2009. After his three-year study of abstraction with Morphoses, Christopher Wheeldon’s latest two works are contemporary ballet renditions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011) and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale (2014) for the Royal Ballet—both of which were met with excitement and acclaim and were screened nationwide in AMC Theatres.

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It is in this context that I consider The UpStairs Lounge, an evening-length piece of dance theater conceptualized and choreographed by Monica Ordoñez and presented by the Mélange Dance Company. I was provided a complimentary ticket and invited to review the work in its second staging at Cafe Istanbul on March 27, 2015; previously The UpStairs Lounge had been presented at the 2014 New Orleans Fringe Festival.

It’s usually a good idea, when tackling a new project, for an artist to ask herself: Why this project? Why here? Why now? In the case of The UpStairs Lounge, the answers are fairly self-evident. The piece, which runs about an hour long, tells a history of the New Orleans queer community in the early 1970s, with the central event being an arson attack on the popular queer French Quarter hangout The UpStairs Lounge. Thirty-two people died in the fire; it was (and, according to my research, remains) both the deadliest arson attack in the history of New Orleans and the largest massacre of queer people in United States history. The prominence of the issue of gay rights in our present-day collective consciousness, the lack of public awareness of the attack at the UpStairs Lounge, and the local setting make Ms. Ordoñez’s choice of topic feel timely and relevant to her audience.

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A body of work does already exist about the UpStairs Lounge attack, some of which has been presented locally in the past decade. I learned of the UpStairs Lounge attack in 2008, through a Prospect.1 installation at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans by artist Skylar Fein, titled “Remember the UpStairs Lounge.” A documentary titled The UpStairs Lounge Fire, by Royd Anderson, was aired on local television in 2013. Also in 2013, the musical Upstairs by Wayne Self premiered at Cafe Istanbul. In 2014, Louisiana author Clayton Delery-Edwards published a historical account, The UpStairs Lounge Arson, that was named Book of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. And at least two other documentaries appear to be in progress (Tracking Fire) or forthcoming (UpStairs Inferno) in 2015. To her credit, Ms. Ordoñez is intimately familiar with this body of work, appears to have developed functional relationships with those responsible for producing it, and seeks to incorporate and acknowledge the existing research and existing narratives at every available opportunity.

Such vigilance does, at some points, hamstring The UpStairs Lounge as a work of dance theater. The piece is presently conceived as an integration of documentary film and dance. Pragmatically this means that we start with a documentary film clip; then dancers emerge, perform to music, and exit; we see another documentary film clip; dancers again emerge and perform to music; and so on. The documentary clips effectively communicate the narrative of the UpStairs Lounge arson; indeed, my assumption is that Ms. Ordoñez relies on the documentary clips because she wants to ensure that the audience leaves with a firm grasp of the historical events. If her goal is, at least in part, to raise awareness of the attack, it’s understandable that she would want to share this wealth of visually compelling documentation with her audience. And, of course, dance is a notoriously difficult medium for narrative. If you want to tell a story through dance, remember, the choreographic default is to choose a story that practically everyone already knows. The UpStairs Lounge is not exactly Cinderella in terms of broad public familiarity.

I would argue, though, that Ms. Ordoñez and her company have in fact made an excellent choice in taking on the narrative of the UpStairs Lounge, and they could achieve their artistic and humanistic goals without most or all of the documentary film supplementation. Right now, the film clips do all the necessary narrative work, and the dance interludes function as a sort of redundant “dramatic re-enactment” of the previous clip. Set to musical selections with lyrics that broadcast their thematic intentions (e.g., the conclusion of the show, demonstrating a moment of unity among the queer community, is set to “United We Stand”), the dance pieces feel a bit too on-the-nose. I suspect a decreased reliance on the documentary clips would have two desirable effects: first, that the broadly narrative moments of the dancing would feel useful, rather than overly literal and redundant, as the audience tries to grasp the story; and second, that Ms. Ordoñez might become more comfortable abstracting from the history and the documentation, affording her greater freedom in her scenic and choreographic choices.

Cutting down or eliminating the documentary film clips would also smooth out some technical difficulties. For example, in the performance that I attended, the audience frequently could see the video playback buttons as the clips began, and the audio transitions between the clips and the live dancing were choppy: a song would begin to play in the film clip, then we’d experience a moment of silence—presumably as the technical crew was switching the sound over to the dance audio—and then we would hear the same song beginning again as the dancers entered. These moments felt as though the seams of the work were unintentionally on display; they degraded the professionalism of the presentation. I also was surprised to see commercials (“teaser-trailers”) for upcoming documentaries about the UpStairs Lounge attack interjected into the show. While I wholeheartedly admire Ms. Ordoñez for going to such lengths to credit her sources, the commercials were jarring departures from the world of her piece.

Ms. Ordoñez, in addition to being a contemporary choreographer interested in classical vocabulary, is herself a skilled contemporary dancer with an appealing lyric quality, and she has a wealth of well-trained, well-rehearsed dancers with confidence and great physical facility in the Mélange Dance Company. I suspect that I was invited to review the piece based on my statement, in another review of recent performances by Complexions Contemporary Ballet and the Marigny Opera House Dance Company, that I am tired to death of heteronormative partnering in contemporary dance. It comes as no surprise that The UpStairs Lounge features non-heteronormative partnering—and yes, I was thrilled to see it. Not only did I enjoy the duets between Braedon Mason and Cody Cody (“My Body,” “John and Jane Golding”), but I also was delighted, in the latter section, by the moments in which Jane Golding (played by Elizabeth Mantalas) supported her male partner. Throughout the show, whether the dancers’ interactions were tender and delicate or athletic and high-flying, the partnering was expertly executed, thematically resonant, and exciting to watch.

I also cheered Cody Cody’s drag impersonation of Liza Minnelli (“You Have to Understand the Way I Am…Mein Herr”). His costume and makeup were effective in helping to create his character—which is not Liza herself, but meta-Liza, drag Liza. And he is a classy mover, tall and imposing and graceful, and exactly as crass as he needs to be. I did wish, though, that his part of the “Mein Herr” section had been less of a pantomimed recreation of the Cabaret film scene and even more of a loose interpretation. And though I appreciate demonstrations of technical skill, Liza’s back-up dancers (Alexa Erck Lambert and Gianni Reid) seemed out of place as they performed grand jetés and tours à la seconde—I was craving choreography that, like Liza’s performance, was a bit more deranged.

Because New Orleans has very few venues adequate for dance presentation and within reach of the DIY dance-maker budget (and nearly all dance-makers in town are working with a DIY budget), I’d like to make a few notes on Cafe Istanbul as a dance venue. Located in the back of the Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue, the two-story theater comfortably seats (by my estimate) more than 100 patrons and offers a powerful sound system and the flexibility of a multimedia display. It also boasts a side bar and the ambiance of a romantic, divey cabaret club. The stage is small and close to the audience, which has its benefits and opportunities, but a chief drawback is that large, traveling movements are not too feasible and intricate choreographic patterns are likely to go unseen. The Mélange dancers made use of both the elevated stage and the floor space immediately in front of the stage to accomplish their movement. I wouldn’t recommend the space for dance-makers interested in large casts and athletic choreography, but more self-contained movement could likely be successfully presented at Cafe Istanbul. The lighting for this show was basic and not particularly interesting—it’s unclear from the program notes whether or not the lighting design was done in-house—but the venue does seem to have the requisite set-up available for dance-makers who want to bring in a lighting designer.

Ms. Ordoñez is clearly a dance-maker who sees the value in restaging and refining her work. With all of the recent and upcoming documentary and theatrical work, and corresponding media coverage, about the UpStairs Lounge attack, I believe the story is gaining sufficient traction—in at least the local public consciousness—for Mélange Dance Company to successfully re-envision The UpStairs Lounge as a stand-alone piece of narrative dance theater—a contemporary story ballet that fits into a modern global trend in dance-making. And, far from pandering to the audience, or merely staging a dance version of an already familiar tale, as so many story-ballet choreographers have done, The UpStairs Lounge can perform the valuable and radical work of raising awareness of this historical event while telling an emotionally compelling story of the trials and triumphs of the local queer community.