Last December the choreographer and dancer Raja Feather Kelly premiered an audacious and touching new “vogue-ballet” that honored two artists important to his work: pop artist Andy Warhol and choreographer Faye Driscoll. The title incorporated both of them; it was called “Andy Warhol’s DRELLA (I Love You Faye Driscoll).” Here is the tongue-in-cheek description of the show, somewhat in the manner of one of those interminable titles (including liberal capitalization) of a ... seventeenth-century scientific tract:
Andy Warhol’s DRELLA (I Love You Faye Driscoll) Is A Movement-Based Drag Performance Essay Inspired By Andy Warhol’s Alter Ego “Drella”—A Contraction Of Dracula And Cinderella, Envisioned By Warhol Superstar Ondine. Beyond The Focus On Warhol’s Legacy, Raja Feather Kelly’s Interest Is In Addressing His Concerns With Identity, Sexuality And Self-Worth. In His Vogue-Ballet, Kelly Creates A Surreal World; A Gender-Bending, Race-Shifting, Multi-Medium “Artsploitation” In Response To Today’s Consumer Culture, And Celebrity Worship. It Is The Latest In The Choreographer’s Warhol-Driven Series Leading To A Final Staging Of The Feath3r Theory Presents: ‘WHO’S AFRAID OF ANDY WARHOL?’
Raja Feather Kelly’s dance troupe is called feath3r theory, after a novel he wrote in 2008 while in Sydney, Australia.
In the early 1980s, Warhol famously took up the Polaroid camera as his medium of choice, producing memorable images of Debbie Harry, Dennis Hopper, Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali, Sylvester Stallone, etc. He also turned the Polaroid on himself—but with a difference. Many of Warhol’s Polaroid self-portraits presented himself in drag, as a character named “Drella”—the name is a portmanteau of “Dracula” and “Cinderella,” made most famous by Lou Reed and John Cale in their Songs for Drella.
Among the most obvious descriptors for “Drella” would be “pale”—given the white shirt, white makeup, and platinum blond wig, it was only the bright red lipstick and tartan necktie that saved Warhol/Drella from blending into the white background altogether. So in a brazen move of identification, the African-American Kelly took up the semiotically charged method of blackface—well, “whiteface” in this case—possibly to alienate audiences mildly but, far more important, to forge a deeper connection with the nakedly performative essence of Drella.
“Self-Portrait in Drag” (1981)
“Self-Portrait in Drag” (1981)
Raja Feather Kelly as Drella
The word “vogue” is the giveaway here. Kelly’s intentions are so obviously benign, and the outcome so joyous, that nobody could object to it. Kelly’s term for it is “artsploitation.” As he says, “I don’t know art without Andy Warhol. ... I was born into the challenge of Andy Warhol.” If you think there might be a dodge going on here in the use of racially coded/offensive blackface, note that the slogan for the recent performances (June 5/6) at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn was “Black by Popular Demand.”
If you’re in New York, keep an eye out for future performances of this exultant and challenging work; Kelly’s already brought it back once, he may do so again.
Here’s a teaser for the performances at the Invisible Dog on June 5 and 6:
Here’s Raja Feather Kelly discussing the importance of Warhol on his artistic development: