What’s it like to step into another person’s fever dream…if that person has been obsessed with Andy Warhol since childhood? That’s the premise behind Raja Feather Kelly’s the feath3r theory, the first and only dance company devoted to the great Factory master of celebrity. For his new show presented by Danspace Project, Andy Warhol’s Tropico, Kelly was inspired by Lana Del Rey’s short film by the same name, which follows a kind of Adam and Eve/Bonnie and Clyde narrative from original sin to redemption, with John Wayne standing in for the God figure. Melded with Warholianism, it makes for a (two-hour plus) surreal ride through a strange new land, recycling pop culture themes and touching on the power of celebrity as well as Kelly’s own identity.
“Seeing Lana Del Rey’s Tropico made me think of Warhol and what he would do, and how ideas are connected and have lived on from now, and where that interacts with what I’m thinking about and my relationship to pop culture and my relationship to religion and to my identity and how that instructs and becomes an eternal story,” said Kelly. “I feel like Lana Del Rey and Andy Warhol sometimes get a bad a rap as sort of vapid, and I really think they are doing something larger than people will give them credit for.”
If you arrive at Tropico on time, the show will have already started (Kelly doesn’t like clear-cut beginning and endings) with the dancers participating in a kind of artful rave, slithering around one another and scrambling on the floor, a shroud of red-lighted smoke covering them. The characters (one of them completely nude for most of the show) are kind of archetypal cartoons and wear outlandish wigs, their bodies painted different bright colors, often with designs on their faces.
“I’ve always wanted to feel like I lived inside a pop portrait in that time,” Kelly explained. “So the visual aesthetic of the costumes and the hair is all trying to bring that to the surface–what if we actually walked into a portrait and were living creatures and cartoons and characters?”
After about half an hour of the rave, the narrative portion of the show begins– Kelly explained that he loves musicals and envisions the show as a kind of “dance-ical” where “we danced instead of sang–where it follows a narrative.” Loosely, the strange Tropico characters are convinced to leave their home for a better dream land–but along the way they encounter many trials (especially a memorable pack of wolves), finally culminating in a jilted wedding and transformation.
Much of the action derives from Kelly’s free-flowing recycling of formulaic plots and characters. In an expanded Warholian fashion, there are plenty of weird references to pop culture (with twists) thrown into the show. You could almost play a game to see who can recognize the most: At one point a girl clicks her heels together and tries to go home, a lá Dorothy; men shout lines from Charlie Chaplin’s “I’m sorry but I don’t want to be a dictator” speech; a gay-fairy refashioning of Tinkerbell requires the audience to rouse Kelly from the dead by clapping. The soundtrack, a collaboration between Kelly and Bryan Strimpel, was conceived of as a new score for the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive– Kelly gave Strimpel a series of clips and loops and he turned them into a score for the film, which was then overlaid onto the choreography of Tropico.
Kelly said he was particularly thinking of a famous Warhol quote in creating the show: “It’s the movies that have really been running things in America every since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.”
Of course, Tropico isn’t nearly as easily digestible as a Warhol Marilyn Monroe portrait or Campbell’s Soup series–in Kelly’s vision, the show pushes out past the limits of the pop artist’s underlying ideas about culture and celebrity to speak to our current reality-television saturated-world.
“Culture is a huge cornucopia that gets played over and over again on the micro and macro level,” said Kelly. “I wanted to take a stab at exploring: What do I think and feel? What am I being told to say and think? What is truth and what is illusion and are they different? And what’s the difference between the life that I dream and the life that I’m walking in now?”