CosmiComedy: There’s No Business Like Show Business
By Lavinia Plonka
Let me entertain you.
Let me make you smile.
Let me do a few tricks,
Some old and then some new tricks;
I’m very versatile
– Jule Styne, Steven Sondheim, Gypsy
Years ago on a cross country adventure, I found myself in Spearfish, South Dakota where for seventy years they had been performing an outdoor Passion Play, with a cast of 150 plus sheep and horses and a Jesus whose wig occasionally slid sideways giving him a Muppet look.
It was so fantastically bad, that for the first hour, my husband Ron and I were riveted to our seats, mouths open in disbelief, trying to convince ourselves to enjoy it for its kitsch factor alone … until the Dance of the Seven Veils.
What I would have given to just once in my life play the role of Salome. To sinuously portray the personification of devil as woman and slither around with filmy fabric in a dance that blinded rulers – wow. The closest I ever came to being a femme fatale was in college when I was once cast in an avant garde production about the infamous Donner Party. The Donner Party, which tried to find a different route to California, nearly froze to death and its members resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.
In this dramatization, I portrayed an evil young Ada Keeseberg who seduced one of the men and then ate him. My performance became notorious because I did some sort of oversexed recap of my man eating adventure while slithering up and down a pole in the middle of the theater. Perhaps in some way, that moment back in 1972 foreshadowed the current pole dancing craze. Or did I actually create it by sending the idea out into the morphic field? Was this quantum physics at work? Somewhere in time, an event occurs that reverberates with surprising results. But was my pole dance art or entertainment?
Salome’s dance of the Seven Veils in Spearfish is forever seared in my memory. When I was a performer (to this day I don’t know if I was an artist or an entertainer), I once created a piece about a performer trying to sing a torch song as everything goes wrong. My cigarette wouldn’t light, the heel came off my shoe, etc, etc. It took hours of rehearsal to hit just the right note of disastrous awkwardness. Yet here was Salome in a spontaneously hilarious disaster: her scarf refused to unfurl, she got tangled in her veils while trying to descend the stairs. But the coup de grace was the rogue donkey that jumped his cue from the Palm Sunday procession waiting in the wings, climbing onstage and braying with the hapless temptress. Now that’s entertainment. Or was it art?
For centuries, it was a woman’s duty to entertain. From Geishas to the boss’s wife hosting cocktail parties, we have always excelled at place settings, sparkling conversation, and the occasional turn at the piano. Of course, not all entertaining ends well. In Virgil’s poem the Aeneid, Dido was the powerful queen of Carthage. When Aeneas sailed into her port, she entertained him very well. But he left her anyway. She ended her life on a funeral pyre. Cleopatra’s gift for entertaining was renowned, but in the end, she also ended her life, allegedly with the bite of an asp. One entertaining woman from ancient times fared better. The Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian, had really been an entertainer. She was a saucy Roman mime who stole the emperor’s heart.
Somewhere in the last couple of centuries, people started to distinguish between what is now called “mere entertainment” and ART. Did Shakespeare think he was doing art when he wrote Comedy of Errors? Or was he looking to entertain the boisterous crowds that patronized the Globe Theater? Although some forms of entertainment have been elevated to art (you can’t call a Shakespearean comedy mere entertainment!) you can be pretty sure that if it’s not entertaining, it’s probably called art. Especially if you don’t get it.
When Phyllis Diller showed up on stage with her hair sticking out in forty directions and talked about her inadequacies, we called it entertainment. When Karen Finley got on stage and talked about her issues while shoving a yam up her … (yes, ladies and gentlemen, right on stage, she did that,) that was art. I am not sure how many people were entertained by her performance.
Which brings me back to pole dancing. In a recent ruling in upstate New York, the courts ordered a club owner to pay taxes on the revenue generated by his pole dancers. He had sued, saying that his dancers were artists and that art is tax deductible. The court ruled that they were entertainment and therefore taxable. I found myself giggling, imagining these women filling out the interminable paperwork required in order to apply for a grant from the local arts council. I recently had dinner with a friend who spent a month putting together a portfolio and detailed budget, writing an essay and doing an ass-kissing presentation in order to qualify for a $400 grant. And of course, she would only receive this grant if some committee decides that what she’s doing is art, not entertainment.
I once worked for a choreographer whose work was utterly boring. But he was a master at writing grants, so he kept on touring as an artist.
Is Ellen DeGeneres an artist, an entertainer or both? What about Sandra Bullock? Could Sarah Palin perhaps be a performance artist in disguise? Or is she merely an entertainer? Can you imagine Adele or Beyoncé applying for a grant?
Back in college, my choreography teacher criticized me because I created dances that were funny, or told stories. “That’s not modern dance,” she said, “That’s entertainment.” Forty years later, in the world of non-linear time, I’m still dancing and still telling stories.
The clown with his pants falling down
Or the dance that’s a dream of romance
Or the scene where the villain is mean
– Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, The Bandwagon
When not entertaining herself by making funny faces in the mirror, Lavinia entertains the endless possibilities Awareness Through Movement® offers. Discover The Feldenkrais Method® at laviniaplonka.com. Want more CosmiComedy? Visit cosmicomedy.com