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
Debbie Millman: The performance artist and dancer, Jack Ferver, isn't afraid to shock, provoke, or mystify. His work digs deeply into gender, sex, power, and politics. "The New Yorker" once called his performances "so extreme they sometimes look and feel like exorcisms."
What exactly is Jack Fever doing? Part ballet, part theater, and all infused with social commentary, Ferver says he sees himself as a mirror using both humor and darkness to engage with audiences and reflect their emotional and psychological rawness.
Ferver is also a professor at Bard College. His work has been performed at the Guggenheim, the New Museum, the Kitchen, and Performance Space New York. He's here today to talk about his work, his life, and his new show, "Everything is Imaginable," which just debuted at New York Live Arts.
Jack Ferver, welcome to "Design Matters."
Jack Ferver: Thank you so much for having me, Debbie. I'm so happy to be here. It's so good to see you always.
Debbie: Oh, I'm happy you're here, too. Jack, "Out Magazine" wrote this about your 2012 show, "Two Alike." "The show is a psycho‑sexual, semi‑autobiographical, choreographic piece that explores the bullying, terrorizing, and abuse Ferver suffered as a child in rural Wisconsin."
Jack, you've said that your main reason for making art is so people don't feel as lonely as you have felt. Please tell us a little bit more about your childhood. I know you described it as "Boys Don't Cry," but without the funny parts.
Jack: Yeah, that's my one‑liner for it. As they said, I grew up in rural Wisconsin. My parents were older. They weren't anticipating on having another child.
Debbie: You were a surprise baby.
Jack: I was a surprise baby. My sister is 18 years older than me. My brother is 20 years older than me. Even growing up, people thought that my parents were my grandparents.
My parents were from Madison, Wisconsin. They were both very liberal Democrats. My father was a professor at the UW of Madison, Wisconsin. He was 59 when I was born.
Debbie: How old was your mom?
Jack: My mother was 43.
Jack: I had these parents who were older. I didn't have siblings who were in the house, which was one thing. Also, right away, I wanted to be an actor early on. We're in this place now, which is so amazing. There's so much discourse about trans. When I grew up, there wasn't.
I remember in kindergarten saying, "I'm, I'm half‑boy, half‑girl." That was the beginning of the end. The bullying started pretty early on. Then it progressed and became more violent by the time I was in high school.
Debbie: Violent in what way, Jack?
Jack: I had talked about this in "Everything is Imaginable," but there's the example I gave in that was when this kid slammed me into a locker and there was a piece of metal sticking out of the locker, and it cut through my shirt and through my arm. He spit in my face. Stuff like this, that's an example of daily occurrences that were happening.
Debbie: The school never intervened?
Jack: It was a very, "Just ignore it." Sometimes, there would be maybe an office visit. What it did was I knew that I had to use whatever I had to get out. For me, I early on was acting. I knew I was good at it. I was told I was good at it.
I found out about the arts camp, Interlochen Arts Camp. I auditioned to go to that, and I got in. Then a teacher there was a professor at Interlochen Arts Academy. He said, "I'll help you get a scholarship to get to the school." He did. I was out by my senior year of high school.
Debbie: You've noted that the bullying that you experienced allowed you to access your creative self. In what way?
Jack: I think when there was so much duress happening in my immediate reality, it forced so much fantasy for me to cope. I had to create alternative spaces [laughs] with nowhere to go, really, except the woods down by the river. My parents were great about...
In one way, I would have loved it if they would have gotten me out. In another way, they allowed me to be in productions in Madison, Wisconsin at the Children's Theater of Madison. That was where I lived. That was what felt like my real life.
Then, the life at school and the life in this town, it felt like a waking nightmare. It created so much urgency inside of me to develop and nourish this fantasy world, which is what I do now as a job.
That also came from my parents. My mother was ‑‑ I said this at her memorial years ago ‑‑ she was very good at rearranging reality, which is what I do as a job now.
Debbie: Lovely, lovely phrase. You being able to get solace from the fictional worlds that you were creating, you acted out scenes from your favorite films.
Jack: All the time.
Debbie: What kind of fictional worlds were you creating as a kid?
Jack: Because of where I grew up, it's not...
I didn't grow up in New York. I didn't grow up with...
Debbie: You grew up in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, which is a town of 4,000 people, and it's 94 percent white. There's a nearby ammunition plant that has been decommissioned...
Jack: Yeah, that's [inaudible 5:38] .
Debbie: ...and a lot of eagles. [laughs]
Jack: I think 4,000 is more...
When I was a kid, I think it was 2,500. It was Prairie du Sac and then Sauk City. I think together, it was around 5,000, and I haven't been back since my mother's death in 2013.
I wasn't, as I said, growing up in New York City with a ballet and theater and all of that. We would go see things at the civic center sometimes.
What I had first was film. The VCR was relatively new. I think that's actually a big part of my work, that I grew up in the advent of the VCR, so the ability to stop something, rewind, and play it again is very much inside of my theater and choreography, this idea of repetition, cycle loops. First of all, I remember...
What is that movie called? "The NeverEnding Story." I loved watching that. I would watch it over and over and over again. I would dress up as the Empress with No Name, because I thought that she could maybe see me.
I thought that maybe since this was the story that was unraveling, that maybe they could see me. I was like seven or something at that time. Then, the big movie for me was "Return to Oz."
Debbie: I know!
Jack: Which is inside of that solo that you were talking about earlier. Fairuza Balk plays Dorothy Gale post ‑‑ when she's come home, she can't stop thinking about Oz, so they take her to a psych ward for her to receive electroshock therapy.
Because I was experiencing abuse, and so things were happening to me, I was exhibiting traits of someone going through trauma like obsessive‑compulsive disorder. I was washing my hands. I had an early suicide attempt at nine.
Debbie: Oh, Jack.
Jack: I became the person, I became the...What do we call that in psychology? You're singled out. You're the issue. You become the object of what's wrong because you're the one who has the symptoms. You have the symptoms of what's going on around you.
At the same time while I was being put into therapy for these events that were outside of my control that I was displaying symptoms of trauma and duress, I saw Return to Oz, which is all about this girl who's in duress.
Instead of anyone listening to her, she gets sent to get electroshock therapy but instead ends up going back to Oz, where everything is now shattered and in hell. [laughs]
I would act out scenes from that all the time. I was obsessed with that. I think that was one of the more positive ways that I coped, was embodying these roles and pretending to be these characters.
Debbie: You took your first dance class when you were six years old.
Jack: I had camp. I went, and it's true, I did tap, yeah.
Debbie: What made you decide to study dance? Why was that your artistic choice at the time?
Jack: I think I was dancing around the house anyway because I'd seen "Annie." My sister talks about how they knew I was gay because [laughs] she came home once and I appeared at the top of the stairs or maybe the bottom of the stairs looking through the banister singing, "The sun will come out tomorrow."
I was singing and dancing around the house. I do remember the feeling of seeing Annie. I'd probably sit on my lawn and sing, hoping a producer would come and [laughs] take me away. My mom put me in a dance class.
Debbie: It seems like a pretty big, bold move for a young boy in a tiny rural town.
Jack: As I said, my mom was from Madison. They were part of the Unitarian Church there. My parents were so encouraging in this aspect. Then when I was dealing with bullying, they just didn't know how to handle it.
Debbie: You described your mother as your best friend. You two would wake up and watch "Dynasty" together when you were in second grade. You've said that she wrote down a lot of the things you said as a kid.
Jack: She did.
Debbie: They're completely in sync with who you are today. Do you remember anything that she wrote down that still applies?
Jack: I remember a couple of them. When she passed, I found...
She hadn't anticipated on having a child. It was very special for her. We were very enmeshed. I was so isolated. She was this friend, [laughs] which was bizarre because she was my mom.
She would wake me up to watch Dynasty with her. I'd be asleep, and my dad was somewhere. She would wake me up and be like, "It's time to watch Dynasty." I'm watching again right now, by the way, as a way to...
Debbie: The reboot or the old?
Jack: No, I don't want to watch the reboot. This is the one I remember the most, so I'll tell this one. When her mother died, my Nanna, who I loved so much. I was very close to my Nanna. My Nanna was incredibly encouraging with me, as well. I have photos of...She'd have to be the Prince, while I would be Snow White and the Evil Queen.
She died when I was, I think, five. I would draw her face on pieces of paper. Then I'd put them on my face. I'd lay on the sofa like she was in the coffin, because I was trying to [laughs] understand. I was acting.
It was driving my mother crazy. She was trying to deal with the death of her mother. She was on the phone with a friend of hers. Her friend said, "Well, let me talk to him."
I remember standing on a stool to talk on the phone. That part I remember. I don't remember the rest. She had it written down that the woman said, "You know, your Nanna wasn't just your grandmother and wasn't just your mother's mother. She was also my friend. We all miss her very much. We're all together in this in missing her."
I guess I was so irritated that someone was trying to negotiate my grief, in some other way than the way I was dealing with it. I said, "Well, I've got news for you, lady. Your friend is dead." I hung up the phone.
Debbie: You're five?
Jack: I was five, yeah. I mean, there you go. Some people just come right on out.
Debbie: I've got news for you lady.
Jack: A friend of mine once said, "You didn't have parents. You were found under an endive leave in Versailles and raised by wolves." I think my personality was pretty formed early on, for sure.
Debbie: When you were 13, you began classes that embraced the Martha Graham technique of dance. For those that might not be familiar with that technique, can you tell us a little bit more about that style?
Jack: It's so intense, dance. It's so hard to think about how dance or poetry, where people might not [laughs] know about it. Graham changed everything. I wouldn't even say Graham changed dance. I'd say she changed theater. She changed visual art. Her work with Isamu Noguchi. Her work with composers like Stravinsky.
Anyhow, to break down to where that modality of training comes from, it's based on the contraction and the release. The contraction through the torso, which includes the pelvic contraction into also a release. The release, not only through the torso, but then up through the back.
To me where Graham came from, Ruth St. Denis and the Denishawn Company, she was in New York.
This is all in "The Blood Memory," which I read every day from the time I was like, I don't know, 13 to 18. I would just re‑read pages of it.
The Denishawn technique, if you wanted to teach it, you had to pay a fee. She didn't have that. She was in New York. The way I pictured this technique evolving was she would wake up every morning and sit on the floor, waiting for something new to come.
I think it happened just from crying. Contraction and release is you feel that in crying. It's sexual. It's laughter. It's the ache in memory. When I teach, I also look at that early on, if you're just dealing with confrontation. Should you meet someone and come to look at them in their eyes, there's a subtle contraction. You can even feel that.
I mean I don't think a lot of us walk around looking at people in the eyes, just feeling really released and open. Maybe people do and good for them. I'd say, more often than not, there's this slight contraction. Maybe even a big contraction we feel.
She developed a whole technique based off of that. She always said it's contemporary. She wanted to be contemporary based.
I was a teenager and I was in this production of "Macbeth." Lisa Thurrell, who'd been part of the Martha Graham company during the year they had done "Panorama," had moved back to Madison and was starting her own company. She was going to be teaching Graham in school. She came in to choreograph on "The Three Witches." We were all teens.
The first was done, I think, in a more Twyla Tharp landscape. Mine was Graham, and the third one was just crawling. I fell in love with the technique. It's a way, also, of honing energy. If you've ever taken a Kundalini class, there's something akin to waking up this energy that's inside of your pelvis, the chakras, and up through the spine.
Then moving it out through the distal elements of the hands. It creates a very intense performer, I find. I wanted to keep doing it.
Debbie: How did that training influence your work?
Jack: Martha was also heavily invested in psychology. Creating these works that were about exploring all the facets of the human psyche, and of really looking at things that are more dark, hidden. I think of "Cave of the Heart" when Medea has this solo in it, begins with her just shaking. She starts pulling this cord out of her dress, which is like her entrails, that she eats and then throws up, and eats and throws up.
That's shocking. If we look at "Night Journey," when that's being done in terms of like the '50s and '60s into "Phaedra." To look at the work in terms of that context. I mean how shocking, when the other things we're seeing are more in ballet. For me, it brought about numerous things.
One appearing of my psychology with somatics, so this sense of what that contraction is. That's how I learned to cry on cue, actually. It was not from acting. It was from the Graham technique.
Another is ritual. I think that work of repetition, and also of being able to connect to energy, is very potent, and theater is a ritual.
Debbie: You've said that you were drawn to acting and dancing, because you can rehearse things over and over and make them right, juxtaposing life itself, which takes place in sort of an out of control world, where there's evil and bad people. Is this, do you feel from a more psychological point of view, trying to rewrite the past?
Jack: I definitely think early on in my childhood that was my draw to it. As I said, I had OCD. I think Obsessive Compulsive Disorder goes really well with being able to rehearse forever, memorize, and go to the same place on stage every night. I think that's changed for me slightly. My rehearsal process is strong. It's strong to hold the chaos.
Debbie: What does that mean?
Jack: In order for there to be chaos, there needs to be a structure that builds around it. I'm also not interested in dancers or myself getting injured, which I used to do a lot in my 20s. I mean for me in my 20s, it really wasn't a show, unless I was bleeding. That ended for me. It became more about...
I remember Marc Swanson, an individual artist I worked with. I remounted a piece that I had originally done at the New Museum, and then I remounted it at Andrew Edlin Gallery. I called him after I remounted it and I say, "I never want to do that piece again. And I don't want to do work like that anymore."
He gave me this prompt which was, "You need to find how to scream without screaming." Which for me is when I got into more of what I would say emotional formalism, and that that's more of what I'm looking at in terms of my work, but that is creating these structures and parameters so that ‑‑ I mean I am injured right now, [laughs] but ‑‑ that I'm not just doing Viennese Actionism, that there's rehearsal involved in this, and then inside of that rehearsal someone can fall apart.
Then you can corrode inside of the structure that I've made. Then you can corrode inside of that structure, because you'll actually feel safe enough to do it.
Debbie: It sounds like therapy.
Jack: Yeah, it's creating a container and a condition. I've found in my viewership of work that I had become less interested in just someone being salacious in front of me, or them doing a therapy session on me. I want people to do therapy in therapy, not on stage.
For me, the work is about the audience, and so anything that I'm performing in front of the audience I've greatly considered. I've worked with my dramaturg, I've dramaturged, and a lot of it isn't even memoir, it's not even true about myself.
As you said earlier, I'm trying to be a mirror. That requires a rehearsal and finding these ways of trying to with precision remember, study, and be what people are, which is all things.
Debbie: You've said that you don't make your work for the dance community or the theater community or for any community. You make your work for everyone. What does that mean, and why is that so important to you to be able to make work for everyone?
Jack: I think people really feel safe in categorical thought.
Debbie: What do you mean by that?
Jack: They feel safer if they know that you're Catholic or Jewish. They feel safer if they know that you're gay or straight, if you're a man or a woman. When those lines start to blur, it's when we run into tension.
I'm creating events that are using theater and dance and performance art and visual art. I would say my choreography comes out of the syntax of my writing, and my writing is inspired by the dynamics of my choreography, and they each vise‑grip each other to make these works that I've encountered...
I feel like for me it comes up if I'm applying for a grant, and then my feedback will be that this wasn't dance enough, or this wasn't theater enough. I'm looking to create experiences of catharsis. That's the goal, so these things are all getting used formally.
I'm formally using elements of theater and dance including humor and tragedy. I'm not invested in making a piece that's for just one community. I'm interested in making work that is for people, and ultimately for the people who need it the most.
I think it's something that can happen, especially when we get into more experimental or theoretical work that some people can feel really excluded from that work, like if they haven't read Deleuze, they won't get it.
It's important to me that that theoretical element of my work is kept to the process, and I'm not making work that is, "Look at my theory. [laughs] Look at my theory. Yes, I read pleasure of the text very well in parts. [laughs] " Let's keep that to the making.
What I've been doing the last few years is when I'm making a piece, I write alongside of it which is my theory and my research so that I can try to make sure that that stays there so that the performance is a performance.
I'm not interested in seeing performances that could be a paper, and I think we know what that is. You see this thing, and I think, "Oh, This is a paper. I don't know why I'm here."
Debbie: You've taken on an amazingly diverse range of subject matter. In your performances, you've reinterpreted the 1982 film "Poltergeist." You've re‑envisioned "Cleopatra" looking at the parallels between your life and the dancer and the choreographer Fred Herko. How do you decide what projects you're going to take on?
Jack: I journal, I write, continually, and it comes up. It brings itself up. Each piece speaks to me, and then it starts to be made. I test a lot, not everything sticks.
There's things that I'll begin and say, "This isn't it," and then it ends. But it may create something to propel to the next. Don't you find as artist that these things come to you?
Debbie: I think they come after thinking and sitting and pondering and crying for a long time. [laughs]
Jack: You see what I mean? If that emotion has to go somewhere...I think in that Louise Bourgeois documentary, when she says, "My body is too small for my emotions." And I'm 5.8.
Jack: Big emotions, and I feel deeply. I'm heartbroken for the world. The artist is the stomach of society. We are digesting the indigestible. At this point actually, I'd say we're the liver.
Debbie: Absolutely, yeah.
Jack: Now, it's we're really in full poison, and that's my job. I view being an artist as a job. My father's father was a Calvinist minister, and I think that all has come through. It's the work, so that's my job.
I have to keep going, and I keep looking at things. If you're looking at the world and you're an artist, it presents itself. The material presents itself. You look, it comes.
Debbie: You've said this about your process or methodology, "As an artist, my practice is based on the exploration of otherness. My works, while frequently humorous, are built to reflect the psychological toll and distress of xenophobia and displacement.
"I create by first engaging the psychological concerns of the work, then formally working with raw emotional content to create text, choreography, and direction ‑‑ what I call the 'trauma method.'"
Jack, I've never heard of the trauma method before. Can you elaborate a little bit?
Jack: Yeah. First, if I'm looking at ‑‑ and I always am ‑‑ the work is coming from a psychological standpoint, there used to be research there. I've interviewed therapists ‑‑ who that may be their specialty ‑‑ that I locate, and I say, "May I? Do you mind if I come and talk to you about this subject?"
Or you look at analysis, you explore all of this stuff, you ask questions. I ask questions of analysts or maybe a more psychodynamic therapist, or maybe I need to talk to someone who's actively engaged in politics. There's that research, and then I look at that through other people's direct, honest experience with it, and what I've observed in life.
Where that moves from then is me looking at where are a lot of these common denominators, and then where does that happen through movement, where does the body take that on, because trauma goes into the body. Our feelings are physicalized emotions, or maybe it's emotions are physicalized feelings ‑‑ I can't remember which way that phrase goes.
Debbie: What I love about how you view yourself in your work is that your personal story isn't that interesting, but what is interesting is what is going on everywhere. Given your trauma and your experience with bullying, how are you feeling about the awareness or the semi‑awareness that bullying has in our culture now?
Jack: We're in a terrible place still. I mean having the first lady talk about how we shouldn't have bullying online, and yet, we have her husband with those tweets. The thing that is incomprehensible to me is the cruelty to the vulnerable. It's something I simply don't get.
Until the most vulnerable of us are free, no one is free. I find bullying happens everywhere, and I literally see it every day in New York. I think it would require people having more of a sense of hurt, and may that happen, we need the activism to stay strong.
Looking at these kids who are leading this movement, with the NRA where are we? More and more and more adults need to be adult, and that is where bullying could potentially start to slow down.
Debbie: It's outrageous to me that now people, adults, are bullying these kids, radio hosts, and it's...
Jack: As I said, it's incomprehensible. It is pathological. It is sick. That is an illness that has to be addressed, and we have to ask those hosts, "What happened to you? Because something did."
When you come up against the superego, that is the thing of something must have happened to you. When we meet someone cruel, the question is, "What happened to you? Because something did."
If you've gone through trauma, then you either reenact that on people, or you become a victim, unless you get help. We're seeing a lot of people who are reenacting the past. They're stuck in that loop.
That is a goal for me inside a performance that the mirror can be strong enough that it wakes them up. All art is political. It's either waking you up, or it's putting you to sleep.
Debbie: Beautifully, beautifully said, Jack. You have said that performance is about catharsis, but that catharsis doesn't happen in rehearsal. It happens with the audience. How does that happen?
Jack: In dance, in a more experimental performance, you generally have four nights, which in a theater, that be your previous. Your previous are generally a couple of weeks and then you open. In dance and in experimental theater and performance, you have these four maybe five nights and then it's gone.
It's just beyond devastating. Each show gets harder on me. Each show, when it ends that short, after I've spent a year and a half on it, or to two years, feels like the Olympics or something.
The audience is the final collaborator, and the show changes with the audience. It's another reason I wish I had longer runs, because I get all this information on opening night, but then I change the next night because the audience, I can feel them.
I feel their feelings, which are multivalent. They're not all just one feeling, and that creates this other dialog, and that is where the catharsis happens. It's the between the performance and the audience.
In therapy, you have the therapist, you have the client, and then the healing in a way happens somewhere in‑between there. It happens on an angle, and that's what I'm creating. Maybe eventually I'll be a psychoanalyst and I'll just do my audience one at a time. [laughs]
Debbie: Claudia La Rocco of "The New York Times" wrote this about you, "With his mad, blue, Betty 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." Why make your audience uncomfortable?
Jack: I think the discomfort comes out of seeing oneself, and seeing the things that one doesn't want to see that we turn away from. In terms of grommets, I'm not showing things how people want them to be. I'm showing them as they are, and that is uncomfortable.
When we think about what we go through in a day, and the things we might try to shut down, lock away, those are ghosts. Those haunt us, and that's where the exorcism of my work comes about, or the sense of that they're all coming out. They're spilling out, they're everywhere, and that's uncomfortable.
The work that I've most loved from film to literature to performance does make me feel uncomfortable, and part of it is also that I don't know where it's going. Again, back to categorical thought, I think people really want...
They can frequently feel good if they have a sense of where it's going because that creates a form of sedation. When we're living in such high stakes, people, maybe, want to just put something on that says super familiar that they can feel.
We're rewatching "Dynasty." I'm rewatching it. That's where the discomfort comes from. It's me not shying away from things as they are.
Debbie: You have some provocative opinions and thoughts about hope.
Debbie: Tell me about that.
Jack: Well, [laughs] I find that hope says that there's somewhere better to go. I feel it negates where we are. It's this thing of it just will happen. Things will just get better.
Things get better if we take actions to make them better. It requires being active. They don't just magically change.
Debbie: I do find that people wait for change to happen.
Jack: Unfortunately, I'm someone who's done that. I can speak to that it doesn't.
Debbie: I have, too.
Jack: I do have faith, but my faith is that things change.
Debbie: Your action will manifest in some results.
Jack: If you take action, something happens. If you try to help, something happens.
Debbie: What about your teaching? Do you feel that teaching forces you to be hopeful or optimistic?
Jack: It's not even optimism. It's my belief that I am so excited about the younger generation.
Debbie: It's gotten really exciting lately. We passed the baton. The baton has been passed.
Jack: When you look at where the voting was for the election, and you looked at how their age range voted, come on. They are pushing to have this discourse. It's what I said earlier about the kids who are leading this movement, the NRAs.
I don't think it's hope as much as it is a sense of, again, faith that the nature of things has to change and fall apart and turn to something else. My job is to be the adult there. That's what I'm doing there.
I'm trying to create the best environment and the best container for them so that they can lead. I'm not going to be here forever. [laughs]
Debbie: Let's talk about your most recent work. You had an extraordinary show at New York Live Arts titled "Everything Is Imaginable." The New York Times" described it "As a dance fantasia with a quartet of prominent male artists from different corners of dance to join in exploring their queer identities.
"Drawing from their childhoods, Mr. Ferver has devised a solo for each. The mix of styles and personalities offers an intimate and intriguing look at the intersection of dance and sexuality." Congratulations on your sold‑out run. Congratulations on the numerous pieces in The New York Times.
Jack: Thank you.
Debbie: The extraordinary collaboration you did with them on Instagram which is something people can go and look at. How did you come up with the concept for the show?
Jack: I'd just finished doing a work called "I Want You to Want Me." My close collaborator, who I'm known since we met at Interlochen, Reid Bartelme. He found out that he had cancer while we were making that work. I was taking inspiration from "Suspiria" and this idea of Gothic qualities and vampirism.
It was funny, but it was also so wrapped up in death. I was interested in looking at what it would be to be with friends I didn't have and to create conditions of play.
I began that process in August of 2016, and then the election happened, and then my father died. Everything I made, pretty much everything I had made up until that point had to go. It just didn't make sense anymore. My context has changed.
My original questions to them had been there, which was, in the absence of any queer icons for us as kids in the '80s, who did you love? Who was your icon? I didn't give a parameter for childhood. I just said that.
They all chose different things. James chose Judy Garland. Lloyd said Martha Graham. Garen Schribner said Brian Boitano. Reid said My Little Pony. Mine is Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle "Catwoman."
I'd made solos for the four men who were in this piece which, when I then put them together, realized came out of a historical chronology for myself, the first musical theater for Judy, Martha Graham.
Brian Boitano was looking at ice skating routines. Then training trips distracted him onto the stage. That's coming more into my more, later adult work. Then Reid's material comes out of my own choreographic process that is coming out of psychological gesture, I would say. Then the Catwoman piece was coming out of both psychological gesture and my use of abstracting film into choreography.
Then, after the solos, there's this quartet I'd made early on that I decided to keep. I had also decided, for no reason, I had cast Garen in it. I used to be in it. Then I wanted to cut myself out.
Jack: Because I felt so isolated that I actually had to comment on my lack of friends growing up, instead of just creating a condition of "Oh, here I am playing with friends that I wish I would have had." It just didn't make sense, it wasn't true. I had to just make two acts.
The first act were these solos. Then this quartet, and then that quartet, James and Reid, are doing this pas de deux. It came more of my queer Balanchine. Then Lloyd and Garen are in this Martha Graham sex duet upstage. Then it ends, and the curtain closes.
Jeremy Jacobs' incredible set, this gay pink abstraction of ballet flats gets taken away. We're just in this black box stage with a smaller set. It's the model of the set upstage that I'm now interfacing with. As a way of almost I took the whole show in it. Like, it was just in my mind, and it was back there. Then I'm alone.
Then I talk something. I tell the story about having torn my calf a couple of weeks prior to the show and what that brought up for me. It just starts to shatter. It starts to corrode. The prompt for my part came from my drama turk, which was, he said, "Well, what does Catwoman do in "Batman Returns?"
She comes home to repaint the apartment. She spray paints everything black and destroys it. That's what I do in Act Two, though Reid comes in and we do have this moment which is about "Who is that friend who you've known forever, and what are the tensions that exist in friendship?"
I wanted to even look at the taboo. It's very taboo to talk about relationships. Relationships, they go through their highs and lows. Sometimes, you're mad at your partner, dah, dah, dah. People don't want to talk about that with friends.
Friends, I found that to be even more devastating. It's the friends and what's happening in the friendships. That can haunt me at 2:00 AM. Reid and I have this duet that's about that.
My experience at post‑election, we all became so tired. I felt like people almost became more isolated in some ways.
We come together for these rallies, and then need to recharge alone somehow. Our friends' interests changed. People go in these different ways. What was that? The shattering of facts of all of this. The queer eye is a shattered eye. It just breaks apart. Then it turns into something else in front of whoever's it's in front of.
All these solos cane out of my body. I make all the choreography of the dancers, of course. We have these incredibly dancers who can definitely get their leg higher than me. It all came out of my body. It was about what's this lineage, where did these solos...? All of this inside of the queer kaleidoscope, coming out of drama and play.
I also would say in terms of play and humor with my work, my work is also very funny.
Debbie: Cheeky. It's very witty.
Jack: It comes out of a self‑awareness which a lot of people have. That's something that we're at now. I feel that there's more self‑awareness these days than, maybe, 20 years ago. That's how the genesis of it happened, and it unfolded over a year.
Debbie: Why the title, Everything Is Imaginable?
Jack: My titles always come first. It was this thing of "What did you imagine as a child, and can I create that for you now?" If James was obsessed with Judy Garland, how could I give him the best Judy Garland solo possible?
The other thing that I wanted to say inside of that title is everything is imaginable, including beyond imaginable, including losing your mind. The shattering effects I felt post‑election, a feeling all of my trauma come on to me in a hyper‑physicalized way that I had not experienced since leaving there was surreal. I couldn't have imagined that.
Debbie: What do you do with dance and movement that you can't do with words?
Jack: The body shows us everything. One of the first things I do with students comes right out of Graham. I have them walk across the floor with their right arm over their head and say their name. I get so much information just from that.
Debbie: Like what? Like what?
Jack: Where they're afraid, where they're open. What it is if the hips have mobility to them? What if their hips are locked? Are the shoulders forward, or are they on the back?
Debbie: I love that you can notice all of that.
Jack: I spent lots of time watching people. I had full anatomy training so I knew where all the bones and muscle were, where all of that comes from. The psoas, this deep muscle in your body. That muscle flexes. If you were to hear an explosion, before you even hear that explosion, that's your panic muscle. Interestingly enough, that activates in a contraction.
I could talk forever about where dance comes in to play inside of this. It picks up what I can't talk about. For me, I'm also trying, I believe, making work in a post‑conceptual way. It's coming from feelings and inspiration. I create all this material. Then I need to be formal with it so that it can be viewed. Then also creating mystery.
Debbie: You are a truly polyman, Jack Ferver. Not only are you a dancer, performer, writer, professor, you're also a podcast host. [laughs]
Jack: Thanks to Reid Bartelme, we have a podcast.
Debbie: It was called, "Dance and Stuff."
Jack: It's called, "What's Going On With Dance And Stuff."
Debbie: What's Going On With Dance And Stuff.
Jack: Because when we came up with it, we thought what's going on with dance and stuff. When you start talking about it, it's truly what's going on with dance and stuff. As we just experienced, when you ask, where does dance come in where language runs out? It's a hard subject to talk about.
Debbie: You've done 50 episodes. Congratulations.
Jack: We're coming up on our 50th episode. We frequently just talk about anything. We review movies a lot. Then we get to have guests on who people might not know about. I feel like dance and poetry, they don't get a lot of air time.
It was important to me for the field. We also certainly have performance makers on. I want to have more experimental theater makers on so that we can give a platform for these people who are the avant‑garde.
Debbie: The last thing I want to talk to you about is what are you working on next. You have some big plans.
Jack: I know what it is. The title came first, Love, Mom. I'm looking at romance and motherhood, specifically through Golden Age Hollywood. The main movie I've been looking at is now "Voyager." I'm working out with the actor, Christian Coulson. I'm looking at archetypal scenes that are romantic. Of course, I have to have "North by Northwest," with the scene in the woods.
We're looking through all of these. I'm aggregating them and creating them as a score. The first half of it will be about romance and love. The second half will be about motherhood. Where and how do we not let mothers have both?
I want to look at it as well. Of course, there's this valence of "We don't see the queer body in these experiences."
Debbie: Jack, thank you so much for being on "Design Matters" today. Thank you for making the world just a more artistic, authentic, and honest place with everything that you're doing.
Jack: Debbie, thank you so much. I'm so grateful by you inviting me on today. Thank you.
Debbie: If you are interested in finding out more about Jack Ferver which you should absolutely do, head on over to his website, jackferver.org.
This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters. I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference. We can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.