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The Dance Enthusiast Asks: Choreographer Mary John Frank about "Debutaunt"

The Dance Enthusiast Asks: Choreographer Mary John Frank about "Debutaunt"
Trina Mannino/Follow @Trinamannino on Twitter

By Trina Mannino/Follow @Trinamannino on Twitter
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Published on June 15, 2015
Photo courtesy of the artist

What Does It Mean to Come of Age?

Now through June 28, Debutaunt takes guests into the rarified world of southern debutantes, as they primp and preen for the “most important night of their lives” at Atelier Roquette in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Director and choreographer Mary John Frank weaves together an immersive multi­media experience using dialogue, movement, film projection, and interactive vignettes. Guests will be coached on the art of posture, table manners, penmanship, and more. But even though the evening is intended to follow strict protocol, something is brewing under this perfect veneer. We become witnesses to a transformation as these young debutantes grapple with gender, tradition, and what it means to "come of age". 

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Dancers performing in gowns tuxedos
Photo courtesy of the artist

Trina Mannino for The Dance Enthusiast: You grew up in Texas and I read that you were a young debutante.  What was that experience like?

Mary John Frank: I went to college in New York and going back to Texas for the debutante presentations was, for me, a way of connecting with home. A lot of the women in my community in Houston participated in debutante presentations and because it was the norm, I didn't give the actual ceremony much thought at the time. I got to wear a beautiful dress, spend time my father, and dance with my friends. It wasn't until a few years ago that I started to question why I had participated in this ceremony that represented a lot of dated concepts that I didn't really believe in. Moreover, I started to think about why these presentations were still happening today. These questions inspired the story in Debutaunt

TDE: How did this rite of passage inspire you to create an immersive dance theater work? Which rituals of this age old tradition resonated with you?

MJF: The debutante world seemed like an interesting one for immersive theater as it is a very specific environment that I thought audiences might be curious to explore. The world we have created is friendly and warm but behind the pleasantries and smiles there is a lot of stressful energy. In Debutaunt, each girl has an agenda or is working very hard to be the perfect "deb" or lady. Each girl is trying to perfect her bow, her posture, her body, her dance steps. For some of the characters it is all very effortless and for others it is hard work and the characters go to some crazy lengths to fit in. I feel as New Yorkers we all work very hard to be our best and watching these deb girls repeatedly drill their dance steps seemed like something that we could all connect with in one way or another. 

The rituals from the deb world that resonated with me were the movement based ones like the debutante bow to the floor as well as cotillion inspired dance moves. Dance and stylized gestures are naturally a part of debutante balls, which is why I felt comfortable taking this piece on given my background in dance. Whenever I had doubts during the process (which was often!), I would go back to basics and look at images of debutantes, take in their posture or traditional poses, and keep creating from there. 

Side profile of dancer in gloves and gown waiting to go on stage
Photo courtesy of the artist

TDE: Your dance films have a strong sense of design and aesthetic. What types of art, photographs and colors inspired you for this piece?

MJF: Old black and white cotillion photographs, Busby Berkeley symmetry, and synchronized swimming formations were some of the things that inspired Debutaunt. Regarding color I was interested in blending ballet pinks and pale greens with more structured blacks, whites, and grays. I was interested in creating something that was soft and feminine combined with rustic, masculine elements. The women I grew up around in Texas possessed a lot of grace and charm but could also be tough as nails and I wanted the design to mirror that. 

A young debutaunte applies lipstick in the mirror
Photo courtesy of the artist

TDE: How has your experience as a filmmaker influenced you in making a live work?

MJF: Making films has taught me to look at movement from all different angles. I make a point to watch my staged choreography from the side and the back and overhead if the space allows. Filmmaking has also informed how I stage things and how I choose to draw attention to certain scenes or moments. For example, if I want to highlight a private moment with a dancer or character, how can I do it without the luxury of cutting to a close up? Lastly, I think filmmaking has also taught me to be more courageous when it comes to incorporating technology and to be more patient as things always take longer than I think they are going to when shooting or in post production! I am learning to be more patient with making movement too and allowing myself time to edit the stage work as I would with a video project.  

TDE: This is the second rendition of Debutaunt. What can we expect from this particular run? How has the work evolved?

MJF: The goals for this second run are to deepen the characters, delve into the story, and continue to stylize the world. We are running on the weekends over the course of three weeks so that we will have time in between shows to keep digging in and making alterations between performances. I am working on the balance between how much dialogue the work demands, how much much movement it requires, and then finding the places where those two elements can overlap. The last run we did was in October and even in just a few months a lot has changed. We have a few new cast members this time and I'm very excited about our new ending. I hope you will come and see it! 


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