In one section of Morgan Thorson's dance-theater work Faker, Karen Sherman and Chris Schlicting lie on their stomachs, hands clasped behind their backs. A couple of microphones dip down toward them as they crane their necks like babies attempting to nurse, singing the schmaltzy ballad "Up Where We Belong." And sure enough, as the microphones begin to ascend, the singers rise along with them, tantalized, lurching and harmonizing all the way to their feet. It's the kind of slyly wrenching moment so flawlessly rendered in the film Waiting for Guffman and endlessly regurgitated in wannabe-celebrity reality shows where blind ambition meets throbbing sincerity.
"I was really into karaoke and it felt so good," explains Thorson about the origins of Faker, which opens the Momentum Series co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the Southern Theater this weekend. "You really feel the fabric and tension of a persona you take on. And since you are what you eat, whatever I am practicing at the moment gets integrated into my work."
Thorson's fascination with impersonators led her to travel to Las Vegas last summer on a Jerome Foundation Travel Study Grant. She spent a weekend there watching performers impersonate the likes of Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Prince. But it was the Elvis channelers who really got her creative juices flowing. "Elvis not only embodies the mystique of celebrity, but he was also criticized for stealing his material from other soul and R&B artists," says Thorson, who believes he was simply emulating the musicians he loved.
In Las Vegas Thorson interviewed Brandon Paul, a former hairstylist who views his Elvis impersonations as a performance-art extension of his work as a visual artist and punk musician. He described some Elvis impersonators and audience members as Elvis-obsessed--naming their children (Lisa) Marie and calling their wives Priscilla--and told Thorson of performing at a bridal shower where the prospective bride insisted that he answer questions like "Why did you leave Priscilla?" as the ur-Elvis.
That's the kind of obsessive behavior that Thorson, an intense woman of 42 with molten blue eyes, wanted to explore in Faker, along with issues of authenticity defined by Thorson as "people stealing from one another to both know and validate what they think is real." Like Paul, Thorson is fascinated by the shaded area between impersonator and imposter. She wanted to show performers in extremis, possessed by impersonation like cannibals who ingest the spirit of the dead by consuming their flesh and are transformed by it. "By abandoning the self to be somebody else, you realize who you really are, or are not," she says. "Elvis can be whoever you want him to be because so much contributed to his legend. I can copy Elvis--like everyone else does--but recontextualize him and make him mine."
Faker is partly about how Elvis was closeted toward the end of his career. "He felt trapped into doing rockabilly even though he loved classical and gospel music," says Thorson. Her seven-member cast worked with clips of Elvis impersonators to develop movement material and to explore the psychological tension underlying Elvis's hyperbolic movement vocabulary. In one section Sherman, playing an Elvis impersonator who, says Thorson, "dies of heartbreak, not knowing who he/she is," dances to a live drum solo by Bryan Billig. What starts out as a gestural imitation of his riffs evolves into a wildly kinetic interaction between the two in which Sherman seems to literally inhabit the music, nearly jumping out of her skin.
"Impersonation is about being literal--looking outside of yourself, observing, imitating, and repeating yourself obsessively," says Thorson. "It deals with getting stuck in your own fear, then finding a way to come out on the other side."