You’re not likely to see a more life-affirming show this summer than Unearthing the Family Jewels, the dazzling and delightful aluminum anniversary of the peerless contemporary dance trio Mad King Thomas. It’s not just a celebration of the decade-long partnership of Tara King, Theresa Madaus, and Monica Thomas; it’s a showcase of the entire community that’s nurtured their challenging, wildly entertaining oeuvre.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the show is a success; these dancers have a knack for getting big commemorations right. When King turned 30 two years ago, she celebrated with an unforgettable cavalcade of performances by her peers at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Each of 30 dancers was paired with the song that topped the Billboard Hot 100 on one of King’s birthdays; the conceit struck just the right balance between constraint and freedom, and the show was a blast. (It also ended with an unambiguously joyous dance party to “Blurred Lines,” which was maybe only something a member of Mad King Thomas could have pulled off, and maybe only that summer.)
The central premise of Unearthing the Family Jewels was inspired by a review. (Yes!) As the trio explained onstage at the JSB Tek Box on Thursday, a 2010 review praised them for making work that was so distinctive, one could only imagine the work being performed by those three women themselves. That started the trio thinking, and in Family Jewels they’re putting that reviewer’s thesis to the test by restaging several of their past works with the twist that this time, each of the pieces is performed by male dancers.
The fact that this works as well as it does is a testament to the quality of the choreography, but also to the dedication of the dancers—and, perhaps, at least a bit to our historical moment when, as Sara Larson notes, a show like Lip Sync Battle can find mainstream success with male performers channeling female artists “with joy and respect.” It helps that Mad King Thomas’s dances have always been about both enjoying and undermining traditional tropes of female performance. When three men are, for example, splashed with water while holding billowing white dresses down, Marilyn-style, it’s both utterly absurd and dead sexy.
That nifty casting trick helps keep the trio’s older dances fresh, but there’s new work here as well. A new piece called 10 is for the Rumble has Mad King Thomas pushing, prodding, and lifting each other while a litany of loud pop songs flicker by; it both dramatizes their ten-plus-year collaboration and demonstrates how firmly rooted in strong technique their work remains. Also, in a typically gracious decision that’s also a curatorial coup, they enlist three of their mentors—Emily Johnson, Judith Howard (with April Sellers), and HIJACK (with Naomi Joy)—to present new work.
HIJACK’s If you say my dancing is effeminate than I will never dance again plays, in this context, like a tongue-in-cheek yet poignant meditation on work and identity; clad in oversize Best Buy staff shirts, Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder, and Joy perform a searching, often intentionally stiff litany of motions to Xiu Xiu’s pained cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Howard, a crucial influence on Mad King Thomas when the three met as students at Macalester College, makes a typical—which is to say, extraordinary—spectacle with a dance involving surreal costumes, a four-poster bed, a dozen supporting male dancers, and Peeps on Peeps on Peeps.
It’s Johnson, though, who grounds the show with a moving sincerity. On Thursday night she passed a bottle of tequila around (“This is a Mad King Thomas show. If we’re all drinking, you should probably be drinking too”), produced a seasoned salmon from her native Alaska, and—presenting a monologue, whispering in an audience member’s ear—created a space that was intimate and affectionate but also reminded us of the profound issues and emotions at stake in such personal performance.
Unearthing the Family Jewels is a gem: small, hard, sparkling, and epic. It’s a fitting capstone to ten years of stellar work, and, we can hope, the overture to another decade and more.