Kids who read Harry Potter would love Joe Chvala's basement. His theatrical wizardry has transformed assorted odds and ends into a fantasy-world-cum-studio where gaudy chandeliers drip strands of dime-store beads, and exotic fabrics spill out of every musty corner. At the center of this ragtag Xanadu is Chvala's latest creation: a set for his newest production, Birthday of the Infanta, based on a story that Oscar Wilde wrote for his children. Wilde would certainly have applauded this sly conglomeration of decorative parasols, paper lanterns, plastic flowers, and velvet-draped platforms--assorted trashy trimmings resembling a cross between a Chinese restaurant and a Mexican bordello.
Tonight the percussive dance phenom takes his hoofers through the paces of a Gypsy divertissement from the new work, their wild-and-free Romany air rubbing up against Chvala's convoluted rhythms. They effortlessly toss off bits of Irish step dance, flamenco heelwork, and laid-back rhythm tap, a stylistic meld that has become a hallmark of Chvala's eclectic oeuvre. Later they cavort through a hip-hop garden section impersonating flora and fauna while decked out as supermodels.
Birthday of the Infanta is the tale of a dwarf who becomes a favorite of the 17th-century Spanish court after being brought in to entertain the young princess on her birthday. Overjoyed by the attention and entranced by the little infanta, the dwarf eventually realizes that he is being mocked for his ugliness and deformity.
"I think it's one of the most charming and heartbreaking things Wilde wrote," says Chvala, a lean man of 45 with imperial cheekbones and startling blue eyes. "It's about the dichotomy between what the dwarf sees on the outside and feels on the inside--something that appeals to me as a gay man."
The cruelty of children is familiar to Chvala, who often endured the scorn of his classmates. "As a kid, I knew I was different but didn't know why," he confesses over coffee at Vera's Café in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood of Minneapolis. "So I tried to create other worlds that people could visit." He once made a swing out of a banana crate and hung it in a tree. "I tried to find weird ways to swing in it and dreamed of an aerial show," Chvala reminisces. He also made shadowbox worlds and, encouraged by his parents, painted his bedroom in psychedelic colors.
Chvala, who started tap dancing at age five, grew up in a Wisconsin family of Czech descent, pursuing his interest in folklore and music from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. As an adult he performed in musical theater (including Hello Dolly at Chanhassen and My Fair Lady with the Minnesota Opera) and began creating productions that blended percussive dance forms and European folktales with a consciously gay aesthetic. "My work is flamboyant, very camp, a mix of loving things about the world but also being hyperaware and hypercritical," Chvala explains.
In 1990 he moved to Minneapolis and started the Flying Foot Forum. Since then his inspired mix of austere mythology and flashy eccentricity has gained him a considerable following locally and nationally. "Folklore and percussive dance are both forms that take us back to some sort of primal reality," says Chvala. "It's the need to stomp our feet on the ground and make music, shout, express our relationship to the earth."
In the upcoming two-week celebration of Flying Foot Forum's tenth anniversary, Chvala is presenting a mix of excerpts from past works and a peek at Birthday of the Infanta, still a work in progress. Highlights include the "Berserks" section of his Mjollnir trilogy about ancient Nordic heroes; the porno-polka section from Trä, a Scandinavian legend about a female seductress figure; and "All Creatures Now Are Merry Minded," a madcap tribute to the English madrigal.
"I have this compulsion to mix horror, sweetness, and comedy in my work," says Chvala. "I'm basically a romantic trying to deal imaginatively with the ongoing shit of life."