Mad King Thomas are the most earnest postmodern dance group probably ever
There is a pretty hard line between the high brow and lowbrow in art and culture. Postmodernists like to toy with that line. Mad King Thomas likes to play jump rope with it.
Discussions of challenging hegemony and writing while drunk don’t often happen in the same conversation, but a conversation with Mad King Thomas reels from drinking and disrupting hegemony to Swarovski-covered pasties and intersectional feminism to Beyoncé and bell hooks.
Theresa Madaus, Tara King, and Monica Thomas are collectively known as Mad King Thomas, a Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration that challenges the dominant narrative by getting semi-naked on stage and miming fellatio on unicorn horns.
Mad King Thomas are, in no particular order, postmodernist/feminist/queer/comedic performers that strive to ask questions – questions they don’t so much attempt to answer as much as get audience members considering the same questions. The multi-hyphenate group doesn’t really pigeonhole themselves as any one particular thing. If they have to describe themselves as anything, King says, “We make dances that are like if Virginia Woolf went out back and found the dumpster of a drag queen and dug around it in and put some things on and made a dance to Madonna.”
Actually, she corrects herself, that was more true of their earlier work than now. Now, she says, they’re “definitely campy, definitely satirical, definitely interested in social justice and culture issues, [and] always rooted in female gender and queer identity questions.
‘Our dances are always about hegemony, often about power and the structures of the world: power and identity. Gender is a huge part of it. Our work is always explicitly gender and queer informed if not explicitly about sexuality. We have dealt with concepts of home, family, sexism, spectacle, and the environment collapsing around us.”
Mad King Thomas formed in 2004 when the three co-founders, co-writers, co-producers, and co-performers were studying dance at Macalester College together and about to graduate. They performed a lot and decided to make a piece together.
“When we decided to make a piece together it started as a joke,” Thomas explains. “We were all making dances on our own that were very serious, so we had only three rules for [our collaboration]: it had to be short, under three minutes; it had to be funny; and we had to be drunk while making it.”
They worked on their first piece late every Friday night with a handle of Black Velvet (“classy,” Thomas quips), and when they got to the point of talking to a costume designer for their show they realized that this piece was a culmination of four years of rigorous postmodern dance training – this piece they had been writing while they were drunk.
We should probably pause here to backtrack a little on what postmodernism is. Or, rather, isn’t. Or, rather, what it says it is and what it thinks it isn’t. Or, rather, what people think it is and what it actually isn’t.
Maybe it’s best to just stick to some basics here.
Postmodernism, as a critical discipline, is an affront to the norm. Any kind of norm. All of the norms. A collision of the high-brow and low, a blending and blurring of binary-based identities, a celebration of pop culture, a decentering of authoritative hegemony.
All of those are just words, but basically what those words mean is that postmodernists delight in challenging deeply-held social systems and beliefs, throwing “it” in the face of anyone who might have an “it” to be thrown in said faces.
What started as a joke between three college friends using their dance and critical theory backgrounds to play with norms became a passion project for all of them. King had a job In Japan at the time and told the others, “I kind of want to say no to it and keep making dances [with you] and that’s insane.” “But we kind of wanted her to stay and keep making dances!” laughs Thomas.
So, in 2005, over some free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on free ice cream day, they decided to stay together in Minneapolis so they could work together. “And that was the slow climb, or descent, depending on how you look at it,” Madaus deadpans.
In keeping with their postmodernist roots, the early days of Mad King Thomas were much campier and more pop culture referential, though after doing this for 10 years they have been experimenting more with participatory art and incorporating more vulnerability.
“Instead of popping up with more bold, in-your-face vulgarity, we’re maybe inciting more of the messiness between the lines,” King says. “We do things that are kind of disgusting, embarrassing, or inappropriate, both performance-wise but also in the way we create and perform our work. We’re very vulnerable, a little bit chaotic. It’s kind of obvious to everyone and we like that, being vulnerable onstage. [We ask ourselves], ‘What about each of us is hard for people to take publicly?’ Hopefully people watching us can feel some acceptance, some understanding of how they fit in the world. We’re just being as open-hearted as we can. We remain engaged and loving the broken place that is the world.”
“One of the big purposes is to keep us awake and alive and asking questions in the world and to do that in a space that is public so that those questions live in a bigger world,” says Thomas. “The definition of what’s acceptable and what’s real feels broader and there’s more space for asking questions and solving problems. We love the world a shit-ton but think the world is super broken. Our world lives in that space – loving a thing that is terrible and wanting to make it different. One thing I really love is that I think we have a lot of faith in our audiences. If all of them are thinking about these things, maybe something will actually happen, or maybe we minimize [feelings of] isolation; whatever it is that will let us become greater.”
Thomas says that Mad King Thomas is, at its core, in conversation with the world. “I feel more connected with the world when I’m interacting in a broader range of ways, having aspects of my life that are like other people’s, [and be] a part of a larger picture.”
“We’re concerned with our whole experience, which includes our whole bodies and our whole minds: the whole experience being in time with the other people,” says King. “We’re making work that investigates rather than making work that just tells you something.”
“Performance heightens my experience of the world,” says Thomas. “We do it in the community with many witnesses. The time I feel most aligned in the world is when I’m out in nature, but in performance I feel like all of me is there and I try to bring every piece of me and have it available. It’s all on display, everything is on the skin, all there. Some of it will resonate and some of it won’t – the ways in which we’re beautiful and the ways we are ugly.”
She continues, “Mad King Thomas has two personal aspects: one part is as a trio digging in and questioning the world around us, bringing all these things to stew, and the other part is bringing that to the stage and being willing to be seen. It’s so radical because that kind of investigation we’re trying to do is fundamentally destabilizing – you’re not supposed to present yourselves that way. Crazy people present themselves that way. Kids who haven’t been socialized or old people who don’t give a fuck anymore present themselves that way. That thing of asking people to reexamine, or asking people what they’ll take of their full selves – Where’s your comfort? Where’s your discomfort?”
At one point Madaus laughs at a comment Thomas made: “We talk about ‘Our most honest selves’ and we’re talking about felating unicorns onstage. GOD we sound so earnest.”
Is there a place for earnestness in postmodern critique? In fact, their earnestness might be the most aggressively postmodern thing about Mad King Thomas.
Madaus, King, and Thomas are all currently living in different parts of the country, but still create together whenever they can. They teach workshops to students – something they laugh about given the oft-provocative and sometimes controversial content of their work – and are planning a trip to Europe in 2016 to study with dancer Julia Hamilton and, they hope, do a little performing. (Sign up for their mailing list on their website for updates on their European excursion and fundraising efforts to make it awesome.)
Life, The Universe and Everything (Art) from Mad King Thomas on Vimeo.