- Derek Carlisle
There is only one simple thing you can say about art, namely: There is no one simple thing you can say about art.
The word is too expansive, and its practitioners too varied, to have it mean only one thing. Sometimes it's the classical dignity of an operatic or symphonic performance; sometimes it's the taboo-busting euphoria of a drag performance. It can make you cry, it can make you laugh, it can make you angry. And all of those things are real, all of them legitimate, all of them necessary.
This year, our overview of local arts is as wide-ranging as the word "art" itself. From the story behind the creation of Abravanel Hall to the shut-down-by-the DABC daring of Madazon Can-Can, from the complexities of building a theater season to the unique missions of local art galleries, there's never a shortage of stories to discover in Utah's arts scene. You can use our performing arts calendar to help plan your year, but maybe also give yourself permission to explore something you've never seen before. Dig in and look around, and let yourself be surprised by what you might find. Because if art is anything, it's a little bit of everything.
- Jake Penrose
Yes They Can!
Burlesque performer Madazon Can-Can's one-person show explores deep themes—and ruffles feathers along the way.
By Kara D. Rhodes
Madazon Can-Can has a clear mission: To push the envelope and challenge Utah's stodgy laws—one pasties-clad performance at a time. Case in point: Genit-Hell Yeah, their one-person show birthed from a master's thesis. After being shooed away from The Gateway (the DABC and even hinted nudity don't mix, kids), it has found a home at Salt Lake Community College—along with the rest of Wasatch Theatre Co.'s Solo series. "When the going gets tough, apparently academia gets going," Can-Can jokes. In a frank chat with City Weekly, Can-Can talked about walking the line between censorship and artistic expression, the need for community and their unwavering mission to "change things with tits."
How was Genit-Hell Yeah born?
It was an experiment. I remember writing up my proposal—I've written my master's proposal at least six times and it has changed immensely—I took all the pieces that I have been working on in the past few years and I strung them into a show and called it Genit-Hell Yeah. I had a moment in my life where I was just, like, I cannot be defined by my body any longer. I cannot be defined by how tall I am; how short I am; how long or short my hair is; whether I have tits or I have a dick or whatever I have on my body. I cannot be defined by that, because I am so much more than that. And those things have influenced how I experience the world naturally, because your casing is what people reflect back to you. ... I cannot exist as just a body any longer and I have to teach people that the body is more like a vehicle: It doesn't actually tell you a lot about the person. So [that's how] Genti-Hell Yeah came around.
Did you expect any backlash?
Expectations are funny. I truly am like a clown. Once I figured it out, I went backwards and I realized that is what I have been my entire life. An audience sees that [points to the ground] but the clown doesn't. It trips and falls, and we laugh because we relate to that inner fool that knows better and should be able to perform better, but doesn't, right? So expectations for backlash was never a thing for me. I mean, obviously I should have—I am in SLC and I'm getting naked. When the backlash did happen, my posters were taken down, Wasatch Theatre Co. brought me in and the DABC said, 'You cannot get naked around liquor.' That was a shock. I think that's where the immediacy of my anger came from. Because not only was I not expecting it, I was, like, 'No, this is a violation of everything the arts stand for ... you're just trying to control things with alcohol, and I'm just trying to change things with tits.'
Were you surprised by the DABC's involvement?
I was, yeah. Here is the terrible thing about the world we live in: Everyone knows this isn't right; we shouldn't be censoring art. It's in the First Amendment, and all the laws to protect the arts, and all the laws to protect the theater and all the laws that protect freedom of speech. And yet, even with this knowledge [we still] censor artists ... censor any theater [and] censor a body. I ain't that hot. It's not like I am going to turn a million people on. It's just the very nature of censoring a human body that's in service of an art—and not only art, but an education for social change.
Knowing Genit-Hell Yeah would be performed in front of local audiences, were you ever tempted to soften its content?
No. Absolutely not, and that was one of my platforms, right? I cannot be filtered. I spent most of my life being filtered. I am not going to soften anything I say or anything I do, because it's like asking don't be who you are.
What was your first audience's reaction?
Laughter—which I love—and shock. But shock and laughter are the same thing, especially because I am so safe. They know what they are getting into—my posters are overtly obvious, which is why they got taken down, and anybody who knows me or has seen me perform elsewhere knows there is this sense of safety. I am not threatening, and I think that not every performer has that.
What's the biggest hurdle burlesque performers must jump through in Utah?
The biggest hurdle is to make sure the audience knows they're safe. I know that sexuality in this state is taboo, I know it's hard and that people don't know exactly what to do with nudity and with sexuality. ... Because of the nature of the state of affairs, you have to encase it in a way that they can consume it without feeling dirty ... So the biggest hurdle is to not only create a safety net but to create the understanding and education that not only is this stripping—and that's OK—but this is also theater; this is also education; this is also political; this is expression; this is freedom; this is everything that you don't have that you want. The reason it's exploded in the past few years is because Utah has seen it and they crave it. Another hurdle is the costuming aspect. Any performer from out of state has to buy a whole new costume for underneath, because we aren't allowed to use pasties or g-strings ... How much ass, how much tit [is exposed] is highly regulated [and that's hard for] them to understand why.
What is the running theme of Genit-Hell Yeah? Body positivity? Sexuality?
It's all of it. I don't say much. It's not like abortion is in there—though I do birth myself on stage—and it's not like, hey, I can fuck who I want, when I want and how I want. All of those are sub-messages to the actual story line that is very cotton candy, very simplistic, very easily digestible. And, obviously, I am a naked female body, so all of those things are put onto me but, I play as a man. I come out as a naked person and then I put audience members into drag. I put the girl into the 'pink zone,' I put the boy into the 'blue zone' and then I'm, like, 'that doesn't look right,' and then I switch them. So, it's more identity-based. But I also have uterus pasties and I have a giant vulva and these giant labia that come out. So there's not directly a birth conversation, but the idea that I have autonomy over my body is linked to that. So it's identity, sexuality, autonomy, play.
Finally, what advice would you give little queerdos and outside-the-box thinkers out there who are reading this and are waiting to break out of their shell?
This is a hard one for me, because I'm thinking about what I would say to my younger self, right? I would say, because I've been there, lean on your community. The biggest thing you can do is lean on those people who really see you and give you the chances you need to shine. Because, as much as we can get validated and we can connect with things that are occuring outside of our physical sphere, there is a distinct need to stay connected physically in this city. And that's the only way you're going to see your desires, your dreams, your visions—whatever it is you have that you want—the only way that is going to happen is having community support behind you. You don't exist in a vacuum. You are no longer the lone artist alone in a room in the middle of nowhere; success relies on the success of all. So that's what I would say to the queerdos: Just really lean into your community and don't be afraid of connection. At the end of the day, you need to lean on the support that supports you.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.