REVIEW: cakeface in ‘Stairway to Stardom’ at Dance Place

Stairway to Stardom
Dance Place
December 1, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

From the opening raised fist pump by a glamazon in silver lamé and sequins, you know the five women of cakeface, a New York-based multidisciplinary dance company, mean business. And the business of choreographer and company founder Amanda Szeglowski’s Stairway to Stardom is the world of work and our preternatural quest for meaning in the face of undignified, boring, demeaning or even simply mismatched jobs. Szeglowski, in collaboration with her eccentrically named company drew on hundreds of hours of research interviews that posed a battery of questions to workers across every profession and job imaginable.

The hour-long work, performed at Dance Place December 1-2, becomes a scintillating and sometimes hysterically funny meditation on the nature of work, life, and bad choices. Regrets? Seems like the cakeface crew and their interviewees have had a few. And they play them out in front of Aviva Novick’s set of white panels on which archival footage of a 1980s New York public access cable show called “Stairway to Stardom” plays in wavy, grainy, weird glory. The low-rent TV talent show doesn’t only glorify bad ‘80s hair, sweaters and shoulder pads, but also questionable talent in a pay-to-play set up. An amalgamation of the new American Dream, which is no longer a house, a car and a chicken in the pot on the stove, but is posited as a post-Andy Warhol ideal of 15-minute fame.

The video clips from the program depict singers crooning and mewling, dancers writhing and posing like high school prom queens, a magician and other grinning wannabes and serve as both backdrop and source material for the dance sequences. Clad fully and unabashedly in Oana Botez’s outré silver sequins, their sparkling garments – dresses, slacks, even silver heels and nail polish – serve as suits of armor for these powerhouse femmes to don as both shield and weapon.

Szeglowski mines this insidious wish for stardom with a battery of dance sequences that pound away at the mundanity of it all. Work? Life? It’s all drudgery. As her emotionless, Stepford Wife-like dancers accumulate uninflected shimmies, high kicks, beveled knee poses, runway walks all in beauty-pageant unison, the dance appears drained of its full-bodied and embodied life-force. Stairway to Stardom for all its glamour, silver tinsel and sequins ends up making one re-think life choices, missed opportunities, bad decisions, and unfinished business.

Accompanied by Prism House’s driving, techno-driven score, the dancers inundate with a monotone unison monologue about work, gleaned from Szeglowski’s personal experiences and those interviews. Beginning with what-I-wanna-be-when-I-grow-up tales, the narration moves on to stories about bad jobs, bad bosses, talents and abilities. As the litany accumulates, Stairway to Stardom becomes a commentary on the indignities of the 21st-century service and gig economies – the subtext points out that the United States hardly manufactures goods any longer, only services and experiences. And who can make it on $8-an-hour service gigs?

The razor-sharp commentary posits the challenge of working in a post-industrial nation. The dancers parse semaphoric, cheerleader-like routines with a sharpened sense of the dulling quality that occurs with repetition, which collides with Szeglowski’s premise that overworked, underpaid, underutilized, down and out is the new normal. She and her company borrow – perhaps unwittingly — from post-modernists in her approach. Draining emotion and inflection from the performers, their deadpan approach bears a virtuosic synchronicity in its verisimilitude. There’s beauty and complexity in the monotony of the approach. And the women – Ali Castro, Jade Daugherty, Ayesha Jordan, Cristina Ramos and Nola Sporn Smith — with their dark red lips and placid faces – feel both alien and recognizable:  It’s hard not to see at least a bit of ourselves in their struggles with monotony beneath the manufactured glamour of artificial stardom.

Andy Warhol’s celebrated epigram about celebrity – “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes” – lies at the foot of Stairway to Stardom’s metaphorical climb. In a society where the selfie is now king, and self-invented celebrities burn bright then fizzle, there is poignant beauty in this yearning for the hollow goal of fame. Szeglowski asks us to consider the cost.

Photos by Maria Baranova, courtesy Dance Place

An arts journalist and critic since 1985, Lisa Traiger is thrilled to helm the re-launch of Dance Metro DC’s Dance Journalism Project. She wrote the dance column for The Washington Post Weekend section from 1999 to 2014 and was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week. She edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal.

In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She earned an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the UMCP and Montgomery College’s Rockville campus. She served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was on the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau in 2008-2009.