A confession: I am one of those people who tends to recoil at the thought of performance art. And it’s not due to unfamiliarity, or for lack of trying to appreciate it; at any number of shows I’ve attended, I’ve sat there, frozen, a stoic, thoughtful, art-appreciating look on my face as I panicked internally and fantasized about deflating my body and sinking to the floor and out of the room.
In seeking a lofty word to define my issue with it, I fail and arrive, simply, at uncomfortable. The movements seem … unnatural. Locking eyes with a performer makes my heart palpitate. With my back and legs aching, I resist shifting my weight in my chair for fear of distracting someone else or, god forbid, drawing any modicum of attention to myself and having an interaction with the performer.
The perceived awkwardness of it all haunts me, prompting an inescapable urge to flee. Flee!
But Jack Ferver is changing that.
The cosmopolitan performer, choreographer, writer and director comes from rural Prairie du Sac, Wisc., a town of 4,000 people. Ferver was raised in an environment that seemingly sought to purge him from it. He took his first dance class at the age of 6. For not fitting the standard mold of the community, he was terrorized by his peers, relentlessly and painfully (he has since described his childhood as “like Boys Don’t Cry, but without the funny parts”). He sought to be scarce, discreet, absent. He escaped into fantasy worlds, to the woods, into scenes from beloved films like Return to Oz that he would act out. As a teenager, he later absconded to the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, where he studied theater and took a wide array of dance classes.
Ferver has observed that he was probably meant to have been born in another era—say, that of Bette Davis’ Hollywood. Others might contend that the more pressing cosmic error is that he should have been born in another city. But had he been, he could have turned out to be a much different creative. As he has said, all of the bullying and horrors of his childhood meant that he had to make his dreams a reality. There was no other option. Moreover, he was drawn to acting and dancing for the magic in their form: One can rehearse, and perform actions over and over and over again until they are perfect—juxtaposing the chaos of the real world. In performance, there is control.
Righting the universe a tad, he moved to New York City. And over the years he has turned out an array of lauded performances, from reinterpretations of Poltergeist to an infused take on Cleopatra. As his official bio breaks it all down, “His genre-defying performances, which have been called ‘so extreme that they sometimes look and feel like exorcisms’ (The New Yorker), explore the tragicomedy of the human psyche. Ferver’s ‘darkly humorous’ (The New York Times) works interrogate and indict an array of psychological and socio-political issues, particularly in the realms of sexual orientation, gender and power struggles.”
His work is perhaps at its best when the lens is turned inward. Two Alike examines the brand of abuse of queer youth that Ferver and Marc Swanson experienced. In Mon, Ma, Mes, Ferver deconstructs his various personas to see what is left after they have been stripped away. Night Light Bright Light parallels Ferver’s life with that of dancer Fred Herko, who died by suicide. His most recent work, Everything is Imaginable, studies early obsessions, and spawns from his traumatic childhood.
I’ve pondered if Ferver finds catharsis in his work, if he finds healing. If the act of acting things out, rehearsing them over and over, in any way helps him assert control over the pain and chaos that was his youth. But that might all be to miss the point. Mirrors frequently appear in Ferver’s work, and he has said that a mirror is exactly how he views his role. He believes that by examining himself, he is examining the world at large.
By exorcising (or, perhaps, exercising) his demons, it causes viewers to reflect—and in many cases, that journey leads them deeper inward, a circle of life of sorts. For me, it causes an analysis of what, exactly, makes me so uncomfortable with performance art—attending it, absorbing it. (And it’s worth noting here that Ferver, in particular, excels at generating an environment conducive to this; as The New York Times has written, “With his mad blue Bette Davis eyes and penchant for public suffering, he is good at making a spectacle of himself, and—more to the point—he excels at making his audiences deeply uncomfortable.”)
Maybe it’s the intimacy of it all—or my own random issues with intimacy. Maybe it’s the strange, alien movements of the human body, choreographed so precisely—or the fact that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with my own, and to study someone else’s on stage feels like such a violation. Maybe it’s the locking of eyes and the digital age is to blame, with more and more of our daily interactions taking place on screens, turning human connection into a novel notion. It’s easy to watch a character on a film screen who doesn’t stare back; it’s easy to look at a painting, alone in a quiet gallery with your thoughts. But performance forces you to actually confront them.
Jack Ferver really is a mirror. In analyzing and interpreting his life and the world around him and presenting it back to us, we’re not always certain what it is that we’re looking at. But we feel. And thus we experience the world, and ourselves, in an entirely new way.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief