Is He Serious?

Myron Johnson revisits—and revises—a John Waters classic

Minnesota Monthly’s Jocelyn Stone recently sat down with Myron Johnson, artistic director of Ballet of the Dolls, and let him sound off on crossing lines, John Waters, and the goodness of bad taste.

Where did you initially get your inspiration for Ballet of the Dolls?

I think I’ve been most influenced by going to Europe and studying in Paris in the early 1970s. Even though I had been in serious theater and dance since I was 7, I think that being [young] really made a pretty profound effect on me, feeling that to be a dancer and to be in the arts was an honor.

When I came back, I didn’t fall into an American concept of what it is to be an artist. It’s become clearer and clearer to me: Decide what you’re going to do and just do it. And commit yourself to it. I try to pass that on. That’s really one of the reasons I started Ballet of the Dolls: There just wasn’t anything for me that I could see; I was really just trying to create a world that I could live in.

Based on your background, would you say that Ballet of the Dolls has a very European—and possibly French—influence?
Yeah, definitely, and not an educated perception, either. Actually I’ve gone back since then and it looks very different to me. You know, New York and Paris are not that different anymore.

Tell me about Dance of the Pink Flamingos [performed June 17 to 27 at the Ritz Theater]. It’s based on John Waters’ movie, right?
It’s more based on the influence that John Waters had on me and how his aesthetic in the ’70s and ’80s was very familiar to me, and I understood what he was doing and really appreciated it. And in the early days of the Dolls, it was I think we were considered very avant-garde, cutting-edge, risqué. As time goes on, either the Dolls have matured and already done that, or the world has changed and it’s not considered risqué anymore because things have gone so much further. Especially in dance.

Also, part of my journey for myself is that one project leads to another and I’ll do something very classical and very acceptable for a dance audience and then inevitably I’ll follow it with something that’s risqué and edgy and pushing the boundaries and upsetting. And then after that, I’ll do something that’s funny and then I’ll do something that’s Christian. That’s just me, because I don’t like to eat Indian food every night. And I don’t like to eat Italian food every night. I really do like to change up my life.

And to me, [John Water’s influence is] the audience going, “Are you serious?” and not really knowing. That’s what he’s so good at. I’ve always gotten that because dancers are always competing with perfection. Always. So what I can bring to dancers is: You know what, you’re never gonna be perfect. Sometimes you just have to play the part and let the audience wonder if you know that you’re not a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi, or are you really serious?

Pink Flamingos is inspired by that whole idea of making fun of ourselves. Making fun of the fat-lady drag queen because, are we really supposed to think that this is a woman or is this about a drag queen? It brings up all kinds of questions and the audience, if you really want to enjoy it, you just have to take it for what it is. And that’s good; I’ve noticed that people do want to know what they’re going to see. They want to know if someone thinks it’s good, if someone thinks it’s bad, what’s the story going to be, am I gonna like it, you know, all those things. And it’s like, really? That’s how we want to be? And that’s like John Waters too. It’s almost like affectionately saying, “Fuck you,” to the audience.

The whole challenge, of course, is to find the balance of how do you still get people to come and see it and pay the bills, finding that balance somewhere where you’re not compromising your own vision anymore than you can afford to.

Is there a line between art and plain old bad taste?
Absolutely. Absolutely.

How much does shock value play into it?
I think shocking people is when something is shocking to them but it wasn’t done to shock them. Nothing is ever very funny when someone sets out to be funny, same thing with shocking. And I think that’s what happened with Madonna actually. We could be shocked at her until she started trying to be shocking. Then it’s not so funny anymore. Now you’re just trying to manipulate me. Cause then that seems so shallow. That’s all there is to it, and then what?

I think people need to trust that [a performance] is going to be entertaining no matter what. And if they get shocked, they get shocked, but it’s always under entertaining an audience. Like that famous ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” when it was first performed in Paris, Najinsky thought he was doing the most beautiful new thing in the world of ballet. People went nuts, it turned into a riot, and they closed the theater down or shut the lights off. But that was not his intention. And because of that, it has lived on for 100 years. Because it was an important work. It just took people by surprise.

How do you know where to draw that line?
I don’t think you do. I felt like I’ve been a good boy since that ballet where I crossed the line [77—The Ballet, about two gay vampires and their exploits]. And I felt what that was like to cross the line, cause that’s a different kind of “fuck you,” that is really mean. And I don’t ever want to be mean. I just want to push the limits, but not so far that you turn people away.

I guess each person has to try to experiment with what that is for themselves. Remember when Madonna came out with that nude book? The reaction people had to that, they had loved her risqué-ness up to there, then everybody went, “You know what, that’s crossing the line.” I don’t know why, it just did for what we wanted from her. And I think I crossed the line in that one ballet from what people want from me. I just crossed over too far.

Each artist has to find out for themselves what that line is?
Yes. And I don’t think that when things are intelligent and have something to say that that line is unclear. I think that line is very clear when you know what reaction you want from the audience. I think with Ballet 77, I really wanted to disgust the audience. Then after, when it was over, I was like, “Why would I want to do that?” But I did, and I found out what happens when you do. It was one of the most beautiful—most visually beautiful—ballets that we’ve ever done. On top of that, the message and the story were just awful. I believe in, “I think thou doth protest too much,” when the audience gets really mad about something. Then I think, maybe I did my job. I just don’t know if that’s the job that I want for my life. You know what I mean?

Any more about Dance of the Pink Flamingos?
In this ballet, I’m kind of taking little bits and pieces from a few of John Water’s early films. So we’re really following the journey of this woman, who is a Divine-esque kind of creature. And we’re kind of following her around through different scenarios. And one is her own American family that is sooo dysfunctional. I’m not just making fun of something that I don’t have a clue how painful it is. When you make people laugh, they open up. And then, they get hit with the reality of, “Why am I laughing at this?”

I think John Waters is sorta the master of that, like at the end Pink Flamingoes when she eats the poop, people go, “Oh, no, no, no, oh, no,” and then when she does, they laugh because she did it, they knew she was going to do it and then after that it’s, “Why am I laughing at someone eating poop?” So it runs the gamut of all these emotions and it’s simply a lady, eating poop. But it really gets you going, in all kinds of emotions and how fun to have that in theater. And I have an advantage because if you’ve seen the film before, you know that’s going to happen. So you know it’s going to happen at some point, but when? And then when it comes, it’s like, “Oh no, here it comes. Oh no, don’t, yeah, love it, love it,” and then off you go.

We’re so politically correct right now that it’s time to go back a little bit. Let’s not be quite so serious. I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed in my life as the movie Hairspray with John Travolta. It had taken out all the John Waters-esque feeling about it and just turned it into white bread. It was very disappointing to me. And at the same time, now I’m reading about John Waters: here’s a man that couldn’t even get his movie played in a movie theater [unless] it was midnight, down in the Village somewhere. Now look who’s a multi-millionaire. So, who’s the joke on?

I’ve tried to be as up front about the information going out about Dance of the Pink Flamingos: come knowing what this is going to be. But I do think it’s important to, number one: entertain; number two: don’t pretend like the audience isn’t a very important part of theater. I don’t want to sit for an hour and watch you eat paper; don’t forget I’m sitting out here. So when I make up shows, I never forget that someone’s sitting out in the theater, actually spending money to come and see something.