The old joke goes something like: “How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?” Nine: four to toss fish at the moon and three to fill the bathtub with tiny bicycles. Surrealism embraces weirdness to break the cage of reason: an invasion of reality from the world of dream. So when it’s time to stage a show about Salvador Dali, the world’s most famous surrealist, who you gonna call? Quasimondo, the masters of creative incongruity, of course! Hence comes Giraffe on Fire, a phantasmagorical concert of dance that is whimsical, disturbing, gorgeous, grotesque, graceful, obscure, funny, occasionally euphuistic, but always breathtakingly daring. It’s a grand close to Quasimondo’s season of consistently strange, conceptually bold and visually amazing productions.
The first act explores Dali in his mid-twentieth century mileau. The eccentric little painter, who liked to pose with his eyes popped in perpetual wonder, was also an expert at personal branding: his signature upswept mustache was possibly his greatest creation. As played by the statuesque Michael Petit (who is himself a painter and gets to demonstrate his chops in the show), Dali is an imperious, uber-confident maestro. We see him dancing with models, talking on his lobster-phone, and being interviewed simultaneously by Sigmund Freud and an American talk show host—with frequent pauses for cigarette commercials—all to a soundtrack of period cocktail music. This section feels like a tribute to high Modernism, with its Great Men and their female muses. Chaplin’s little tramp makes an appearance, followed by a comical Hitler, who commandeers Dali’s easel to paint an abstract Mickey Mouse, while a clip from Steamboat Willie plays on the huge screen. Suddenly the stage is filled with dancers in Hitler mustaches, enacting gestures that suggest a bukkake session. OK—likely allusion to Dali’s reputed fascism. He did make an animated film with Disney, but he claimed to be anti-Hitler—though he did live complacently for years under the Franco regime. As you can tell from this brief description, director Brian Rott has taken to heart Dali’s “paranoiac-critical method:” to juxtapose like and unlike objects until their identities blend, boundaries melting in free association.
There’s so much creative energy in this production, it’s hard to know where to begin. Along with the work of seven choreographers, we see some stunning digital video by Patrik Beck; scenic painting by Nerissa Eichinger that captures the infinite vanishing point and craggy cliffs of Dali’s dreamscapes; anthropomorphic plaster sculptures, and a consistently entertaining score of pop obscura. The most defining design elements come from a costumer who goes by the delightful name of Raven McCaw, whose experience in burlesque well-serves the esthetic of transmutation. Dali wears a clever jacket that discloses butterfly wings; other notable artifacts include a death’s head dress featuring giant, realistically cracked human teeth, a stylized rose that devours an inappropriately ardent zoot-suited bee, and a scarlet ballgown-cum-lobster. The tour de force of paranoiac-critical costuming comes when dancers enter in amorphous fabric covers to the tune of the ridiculous theme song from the B horror film The Blob. These satiny amoebas pulse, stretch, and turn into attenuated evening gowns with no arms or heads, still gyrating to the improbable cha-cha. But there’s more: the empty bodices sprout hands and heads, as the dancers shimmy themselves into their gowns. It’s worth the pay-what-you-can admission price all by itself. Also notably wonderful is a relativistic bicycle dance by Jenni Reinke that’s all circular motion, with an amazingly detailed caricature mask of Albert Einstein and a fantastic video backdrop of swirling clock faces.
The second act seems to sink more into Dali’s paintings, blending in surrealistic fashion with the performers’ own dream material. Even the most opaque pieces are visually intriguing, as when the ensemble ingeniously removes stones from an aquarium-like tank only to reveal a girl seemingly trapped behind the glass. Other highlights include a chanteuse with foot-long breast cones, her face only visible in a large circular mirror; a girl addressing us in French, offering lucky audience members treats out of tiny drawers that are strapped to her thigh; the lobster woman hunted by tribespeople with long wooden crutches. If anything, there are too many ideas: who else but Quasimondo could have ten-foot cardboard elephants carrying neoclassical obelisks, or a gorgeous life-sized flaming giraffe puppet, only to parade them across the stage for just a moment? Some people might find the dances overlong— as dances tend to be— but there are occasional excerpts from Waiting for Godot as palette cleansers, and to highlight the sense of existential absurdity.
There is a fair amount of nudity in this show: virtually everyone strips down to nothing at some point. But it’s neither overtly erotic, nor prettified, nor provocative. It’s the cool nudity of the live drawing session, but its very frankness may make some people uncomfortable. What interpersonal relationships we see seem mostly crossed with tensions of desire and power—as befits both the Modernist period and our own era of contentious gender politics. In Dali’s time, the old world was dissolving under the corrosive acids of science, capitalism, politics, and sexuality—a portentous time, which Quasimondo has captured with their usual flair and integrity.
Milwaukee will probably never see anything again like Giraffe on Fire.
The Quasimondo Milwaukee Physical Theater presents
Giraffe on Fire A dance rhapsody in the key of Dali
Directed by Brian Rott
Choreography by Posy Knight, Jessi Miller, Jenni Reinke, Kelsey Lee, Simon Andreas Eichinger, Claudia Sol, and Edwin Olivera
Playing May 29 and 30, 8 PM, May 31, 4 PM
(A Gala follows Sunday’s performance)
Studio G – 161 W. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee WI 53201
at The Shops of the Grand Avenue across from TJ MAXX
Tickets are Pay what you can, but reservations are recommended
“Attention: This production contains potentially unsettling imagery that may be found in classical sculpture, modern art, and contemporary households; i.e. any household containing a television, computer, smartphone, mind, or body. Viewer Discretion Advised.”