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DRIVE WOLVES MAD

At one point in Kaitlin McCarthy and Jenny Peterson’s Drive Wolves Mad, a microphone dangling on a cable slowly descends from the ceiling until it reaches face height. Standing in a square box of light, McCarthy sings into the mic. The quality of their voice is reminiscent of a tipsy karaoke moment, casual but loud, melodic but imperfect. She is singing a version of the song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” by Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs that was popular in the late 1960s as Peterson dances erratically behind her.

Photo by Jim Coleman

Lyrics from the song are italicized and sprinkled throughout this reflection inspired by the performance’s nod to the well known tale of Little Red Riding Hood…

“Who’s that I see walkin’ in these woods? Why, it’s Little Red Riding Hood…
Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood.
You sure are lookin’ good.
You’re everything a big, bad wolf could want.”

The performance begins when a four-footed ghost enters from backstage. This white apparition with two bulbous areas at the top begins to slowly “step together step” across the entire width of the back wall, keeping their toes pointed towards us. The bodies underneath a white bed sheet plod along, moving as though sightless, carefully touching the sides of their feet together as they walk in unison. There is random laughter from the audience at the awkward trek of this silly couples’ costume worthy of a Halloween party prize. They slowly zig zag across the stage until they are very close to the audience. Full-bellied laughter erupts from the crowd as they turn around revealing the sheet stops just above their waists…their bare butts have been exposed the entire time. 

With this absurd cliché of a haunting, we begin our walk into the woods. 

Photo by Jim Coleman

Drive Wolves Mad is a Twin Peaks-like dance fable that pokes at the story of Little Red Riding Hood. This evening-length dance work  features collaborative duo Jenny Peterson and Kaitlin McCarthy. The artists describe their work as “horror, humor, and friendship, told through an aesthetic of the unhinged and uncanny.” Seeing these two white artists in a white, failed, ghost disguise, in a white-colored theater, in a show nodding to a tired white cultural fairy tale with disturbing undercurrents of misogyny, gender discrimination, sexual predators, and sexual violence is uncomfortable and fun to watch. This bare butted beginning brings to mind a critique of dominant culture put forward by queer relationships: a four legged ghost couple with only one skin is a complicated and multifaceted shared body. With this simple faceless beginning this work complicates expectations around gender and sexuality; this creature is not trying to be sexy or pull off intricate dance steps for our entertainment. This simple opening walk becomes a “cheeky” statement against virtuosity and sexualization in dance.

“Little Red Riding Hood,
I’d like to hold you if I could.
But you might think I’m a big, bad wolf,
So I won’t. Awooh!”

The dance continues to offer up many surreal moments like chapters in a fairy tale. In a later section, the dancers are costumed in fabrics digitally printed with their real sized faces in repeated patterns. After a phrase full of arm-heavy choreography, recreating gestures of confusion, irritation, and dismay, they blindfold themselves with masks made of the same fabric with their fake faces on top of their real ones. Once masked in this way, they enter a new section I call PICNIC in my mind: still blinded by their costumes, they set up an all white feast on the ground using the original ghost bedsheet, setting the dinnerware for a mystery meal as they feel their way around the space. The food is finally, sightlessly served after they clumsily retrieve a crock pot full of what looks like white porridge. They proceed to messily serve each other bowls of the stuff much to the amusement of the audience. This culminates in them slamming their full bowls of porridge against the back wall of the theater lifting the containers to reveal the gruel clumped on the wall. The white mush slowly drips down, left there like an abstract expressionist painting, oozily marking the timing of the rest of the piece as gravity acts on this substance. They never actually eat.

Photo by Jim Coleman

 

“What big eyes you have,
The kind of eyes that drive wolves mad.
So just to see that you don’t get chased,
I think I ought to walk with you for a ways…”

In a later section, they are unmasked. Their eyes focus on the audience as they crawl one step but then quickly change the position of their legs with a glide of the feet to the side. Only their hips generate the leg change. For a moment they are wolf-like, they hover as they crouch, their toes curled under, seemingly ready to pounce. Now I see two animals staring at the audience, ready to strike. They do not take their eyes off of us. Suddenly, they are standing again as though about to take a step but then descend quickly back to the floor. As they rise again, they take a step backwards, arms crossing as they direct their pathway to the opposite wall, grabbing behind their necks creating a very human expression of exasperation. This section goes on long enough for it to feel burned into my mind, a predatory dance winding down a terrifying road. It seduces in its repetition, so hypnotic it feels both like no time has passed and that this might have been going on for hours. This must be grueling but they don’t seem to break a sweat. They loop through the choreography over and over again, the dancers’ metronome-like precision supported by Peterson’s creepily whimsical sound score and the pop art-like lighting design by Amiya Brown make for a colorful and shadowy forest-like hallucination.

The intensity of their stare brings to mind discourse about the dominance of the white “male“ gaze and its historical effect on aesthetics, power dynamics and beauty standards in the art world. We may glimpse a hint of sheepskin naiveté, but then the wolves are back, sliding their haunches from one side to another, deftly crouching then suddenly standing tall once again. I had enough time to notice their shadows play off the walls in the constantly dimming light as though they were approaching us deep in the forest on the path to grandma’s house–as though the entire audience had been hiding behind a tree holding our collective breath, hoping they don’t catch our scent on the wind. Animalistic and precise, their disguises abandoned, they remain deftly in time with each other for the duration of this section as we descend with them deeper into darkness. The music escalates; I feel my heartbeat speed up in response. I have the feeling we are all being swallowed by the dark of night, isolated and unsure of who is friend and who is foe. They stare at us the entire time. 

Photo by Jim Coleman

“What a big heart I have.
The better to love you with.
Little Red Riding Hood,
Even bad wolves can be good…”

Drive Wolves Mad makes space to doubt the stories we are told. This work dances with doubt: who is predator and who is prey, who is friend and who is enemy, who is subject and who is object? These artists play with expectations around white cis-womanhood and non-binariness with their failed disguises, deadpan humor and powerful partnering. This duet could easily be perceived as romantic but from my point of view it’s a Thelma and Louise situation; two buddies supporting each other as they explore the cliched cultural roots of misogyny, poking fun at the absurdity of limited thinking regarding the dominant culture of cis-heteronormativity in partner dancing. The choreography becomes the language with which to tell a fresh non-linear tale that defies expectations around gender and narrative structures.

For all the punch packed in many of the scenes in Drive Wolves Mad, the conclusion left me feeling a bit lost. During the last part of the dance, McCarthy and Peterson emerge dressed in red: Peterson in a dress, and McCarthy in a shirt and pants, each with small fur details. The final moments feature beautiful partnering: McCarthy repetitively catches Peterson in states of lyrical surrender, repeatedly lifting Peterson and placing her on the ground gently in a dazzling show of care and strength. The physical signals of romantic love are present and I’m not sure why. Perhaps they are wondering what would happen if the story had a happy ending? The Wolf and Red get gay married and live happily ever after? Within the context of this relationship ambiguity, the very last moment of this piece was confusing; the artists ask us to reach under our seats. Lo and behold, there are white masks for all, they ask us to put them on (I chose not to…this was the second performance in a month in which I was asked to reach under my chair only to find a mask! Is 2024 the year of masking audiences by surprise?). I watch most of the audience don this offering. I’m now face naked in a surreal sea of white plastic faces that bring to mind the Jabbawockeez hip-hop dance crew and the kinky masquerade scene in Stanley Kubrik’s film Eyes Wide Shut. After being so hypnotized by the potent use of failed disguises in earlier scenes I am lost in this sea.

Photo by Jim Coleman

 

“I’ll try to be satisfied,
Just to walk close by your side.
Maybe you’ll see things my way,
Before we get to Grandma’s place…”

In Drive Wolves Mad, as in life, what you see is not what you get. The ridiculousness of judging anyone based on the way they look is made palpable in this performance. McCarthy and Peterson complicate gender role expectations while showcasing their unique brand of unfiltered sexuality and choreographic wildness. Watching them grapple with each other physically and conceptually has changed the way I will remember the tale of a young white femme walking alone through the woods on her way to Grandmother’s house. Drive Wolves Mad welcomes us into their uncanny and weird best friends’ world to experience a dance that doesn’t fit neatly into any category, creating space for witnesses to doubt the intentions of all the children’s stories we’ve been told.

Drive Wolves Mad ran February 2-4 at Yaw Theater. To find out more, visit JennyPeterson.com and KaitlinMcCarthy.com.

***Disclosure: Kaitlin McCarthy is a staff member of SeattleDances. Kaitlin was not the editor assigned to this review and the opinions presented are entirely that of the writer***