Making sense of Andrew Pearson’s The Ballad of Lady M., a mixed-media dance piece, that premiered at The Ruby Street in October 2019.
I saw The Ballad of Lady M. by Andrew Pearson (of Bodies in Play) at The Ruby Street on October 26th and reflected upon its messages and meanings for days – an affect that I’ve always attributed to good art. However, my feeling upon leaving the soiree bent toward dumb confusion.
I went into the show with certain expectations, being a fan of Lady Macbeth and knowing some of the other pieces of source material that would be included in the performance (such as the music of Alanis Morissette).
Days after the event, the theme of the night struck me, and my confusion of expectations unmet was inextricably linked to this theme. As best I can identify, the theme of The Ballad of Lady M. is plainly the subversion of expectations itself – especially as it pertains to romantic relationships and gender. Following this theme as I retraced the evening, I uncovered a number of unfulfilled expectations that pointed to subversion itself being the guiding source of Pearson’s creation.
On the surface – subversion of romantic relationships
Just under the surface – subversion of gender
And, deep beneath the surface lay a refusal to meet our expectations of dance and theatrical arts more generally.
The subversive nature of the piece kicked in long before the performance began with its marketing and source material.
Setting Up Expectations
The first couple sneak peeks I witnessed as introductions to The Ballad of Lady M. were the show flyer and a teaser video. As you can see from both, there is a tone of darkness with a heavy focus on Lady Macbeth as a central character.
A few descriptors come to mind when assessing these materials: tragic, dark, creepy, to name a few. The trailer itself lists “M” words that allude to certain subject matters as central themes, including “marriage”, “masculinity”, and “misogyny” suggesting violence and implicating marriage as a tool of patriarchal structures.
Though at first, I wasn’t sure how the work of Alanis Morissette fit in, after chewing on it for a bit, it is clear that Morissette’s tone is angry and some of her lyrics speak of vengeance, adding to the darkness and a sense that this show would be a direct attack on patriarchal norms. In the end, I’m still unsure whether I would consider some of these marketing materials as truly subversive or simply misleading.
In other expectation breaking clues, the marketing copywriting in emails and other correspondence leading up to the event suggested a wedding ceremony would ensue. My Macbeth obsessed brain put two and two together, deciding that this evening would be a prelude to The Scottish Play, recounting Pearson’s imagining of what Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship and wedding may have looked like before she became one of history’s most heralded villains. Oh, how wrong I was.
Setting the Scene
Upon arriving at The Ruby Street, the night of October 26th, I was greeted at check in with an opportunity to choose from two piles of brown jewelry boxes. One pile had each box wrapped in blue ribbons, the other in pink. Pink seemed to be popular that night, so I opted for blue. I was told not to open the box until instructed and to use it as a place-holder for my seat in the meantime while I enjoyed the open bar provided by The Offbeat Bar who generously sponsored the event.
The dancers and Pearson himself mingled among the crows, glowing with excited smiles and expressing their joyous anticipation for “the ceremony.” The earnestness of their characters took me off-guard. I at least expected the wedding party to be dreading what I assumed would be the wedding of the future Macbeths. I did find some evidence to support my suspicions in the bridal room where ink-penned notes and poems spattered with blood scattered the room.
Other than this subtly dark room, The Ruby Street was dressed like it might be for any typical, joyous wedding occasion with a photo booth adorned with roses, celebratory signage, and garden lights twinkling throughout the outdoor area. Even the wedding party/performers were wardrobed in bright, floral printed costumes.
Though androgynous and gender-bending in nature (like Daurin Taveres dressed in a gown and Darby Epperson wearing a bowtie), they otherwise communicated a positive outlook on the coming ceremony.
Subverting Traditional Relationships
The piece begins the bridal party exchanging signs four signs that, when together, read “Best Man Maid of Honor”. The switch places and signs to jumble the message to eventually read “Best Maid Man of Honor”. Then take off their shoes before walking up the aisle. Already subverting our understanding of a traditional wedding (where shoes wouldn’t come off until some time and many drinks later, after the ceremony has completed).
They proceed to rub their hands in the memorable styling of Lady Macbeth after King Duncan and Banquo have been murdered, then dance in the space between the rows of audience members seated on either side of the aisle. Throughout the dance, a caddy gossiper recalls some juicy details about Lord Byron and Lady Melbourne – famous best friends of the romantic era – sleeping together.
Tangent alert: This reference to Lord Byron and Lady Melbourne having a sexual relationship confused me as I’ve never heard of the two having a sexual relationship as Lord Byron courted many of Lady Melbourne’s family members and recounted how glad he was that they had such a significant age gap – she was sixty and he twenty-four when they met – or he may have ruined their friendship with an affair. But, perhaps this should have indicated to me that Pearson was not taking a literal approach to the source material, but rather manipulating sources to paint a picture that supported his themes.
Later in the program, each character gave a wedding speech that subverted relationship expectations in a number of ways. The best man insinuated romantic love for the groom by alluding to romantic feelings while assuring us that he was “really happy” for the groom.
The maid of honor reflected on her non-traditional understanding of relationships and distrust of monogamy only to be interrupted by her wedding date and ex-lover who claims his interpretation of her philosophical ramblings as a plain lack of commitment and desire to be promiscuous.
Finally, to this point, a robotic voice-over narrator describes love as a mental illness, recounting historical references to love as a “madness” and “sickness” among other things as the dancers move in slow-motion around a bowl of ground meat.
This did not align with the lovey-dovey sentiments previously stated about the – or what at this point I inferred was an analogy for every wedding – ceremony. In the end, I found the message hidden in these subversions to be a message of encouragement saying, “make your relationships what you want them to be, subvert expectations and make them your own.”
However, Sadie Yarrington’s wedding speech revealed a different, but related, message. In her speech, she told a story about her proclivity to date people who looked just like her in college and how these experienced allowed her to find things to love about herself.
By collecting these pieces of self-love through her love of others she was able to love herself more fully and by proxy more fully love others. This signified to me that if we are able to fully love ourselves, we will be more equipped to cultivate the relationships that best fit our desires and needs rather than societal expectations.
Subverting Traditional Performance of Gender
Gender subversion was prevalent throughout the performance in numerous ways but didn’t have as clear a message as the thematics entwined in the subversion of relationships.
It started with the androgynous costuming and swapping of gendered signs I mentioned earlier but went far beyond this. Throughout the piece, masculine cast members lip-synced to feminine voices and vice-versa with masculine performers adopting feminine affects. In the choreography, gendered performance would be swapped often with feminine performers taking on masculine roles when dancing with masculine performers. There was a general sense of gender fluidity among the performers and the varied roles they carried out throughout the night.
After my days of reflection, it occurred to me that the source characters and material were the most obvious gender subversions and were the thread that stitched them together. Lady Macbeth is a woman who reigns over her husband’s decisions, subverting the role of a typical wife – especially in Shakespeare’s time.
Meanwhile, Lady Melbourne is a woman historically known to be subversive with lots of power and influence and seven children, only one of which born to her husband’s DNA. Additionally, her relationship with the young Lord Byron also challenged gendered relationships and expectations of the day, especially given how Lord Byron revered her as among the most intelligent, charming and charismatic people he’d known.
Finally, we have Alanis Morisette, who not only broke ground with the musical stylings of her album Jagged Little Pill but also exhibited “masculine” emotions such as anger in a powerful voice not often celebrated for women to muster. On top of this, the Morissette songs featured in The Ballad of Lady M. were recorded and sung by masculine musician John “The Hound” Lucido.
The piece ended in a suggestion that like relationships, gender should be chosen and guided by the individual’s identity rather than societal scripts. Similar to the dancer’s shuffling with the wedding party signs, the performers took some time to figure out which bathroom they should use and split in two couples comprising of one feminine and one masculine cast member going into the “Men’s” and “Women’s” restrooms as their exits from the stage.
Subverting Performance Expectations
The most powerful challenge to audience expectations was Pearson’s meta-subversion of expectations of performance itself. He chose to use The Ruby Street for its intended purpose – as a wedding venue – but in the end, no ceremony took place that evening. The event was marketed as a dance performance but included mixed media and live monologues by the performers. The audience came to the event expecting darkness, murder, and tragedy only to be confronted with bright colors, humor and hopeful messages. And, throughout the evening, the performers directly confronted the audience in a way rarely utilized by theatre and live performance.
Remember when I mentioned the love-as-mental-illness narration? Well, this was intercut with a cooking show episode about making meatloaf. On top of this, preceding the scene, the performers had put on pink rubber gloves and circled around a bowl of ground meat, but none of them got their hands dirty/they ended up not using the gloves at all.
Mid-way through the performance, we were invited to open our jewelry boxes tied with pink or blue ribbon. Inside the boxes were laser pointers which we were invited to use at will. The dancers began a celebratory, upbeat dance as we aimed our laser pointers at them and around the space.
This happy dance degraded into a panic as the dancers violently tried to rub and slap the red dots off of them to no avail as Yarrington screamed at us to stop until every audience member ceased their use of the laser pointers which were never featured again that evening. Yarrington taking back control in this moment mirrored a refusal to allow others to determine how we live our lives.
All the subversions present in The Ballad of Lady M. were as surprising as they sound. Emotions ran rampant as performers oscillated between elation, terror, vulnerability, disappointment, and joyful anticipation.
The disparate source material gave the work additional richness, though some ideas were not fully fleshed out in the context of the piece. The choreography was as eclectic as the voice recordings the performers danced and lip-synced to. The Ballad of Lady M. was funny, thought-provoking and downright entertaining.
I would love to see Pearson delve into these ideas further and turn this forty-five-minute show into a full, evening-length piece. It has the energy, intrigue, and performance quality for it. If Pearson were to continue to work on this piece, I would like to see if he can have the choreography add more to the story as it was least integrated with the themes and narrative.
Pearson is clearly an artist with great vision, dedication, and enticing sensibilities. I look forward to seeing what he has in store for us next and you should too.
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