Debs on the Reb

Photo by Victoria Will

Photo by Victoria Will

As I sauntered into Atelier Roquette for Mary John Frank’s new immersive dance theater show, Debutaunt, playing until June 28, I was immensely grateful for the hand-held fan given to me by a lovely young woman in white. It was nearly 90 degrees out, and I flapped that fan feverishly. The evening is set in the world of a Southern debutante ball, a formal presentation of young women to “polite society” – a tradition I’m told is still very much in vogue among the Southern upper crust.

The first hour of the piece is something of a Southern, more carefree Sleep No More. The audience is left to amble about the ballroom, interact with the debutantes,  and overhear snippets of conversation as they prepare for their big night.

It’s certainly a congenial world to explore. The ballroom has an effortlessly elegant, cordial charm: beautiful young women in dazzling white dresses sway with tuxedoed gentlemen on a classy, black and white checked floor overlooking a winsome patio with twinkling lights.

Audience members took to their own dance floor swaying, posed with debutantes for a prom-night style photo booth, and challenged gents to games of beer pong on the patio. I, for one, used the time learning how to curtsey while balancing a copy of Little Women on my head (with much help from one of the debutantes) and picked up a few facial contouring tips (blush below the cheekbones, highlights on top).

The evening flits between creating the illusion of actually attending a debutante ball and giving the audience voyeuristic peeks at the girls’ private moments. In one scene a debutante stands before a full length mirror pinching and anguishing over the (nonexistent) fat on her stomach and thighs, only to be joined by two goofy, good-natured fellows from the audience who took to pinching and poking one another’s own hairy tummies alongside her.

The bells of satire ring clearly throughout the piece: the characters are by and large single-note caricatures of debutante culture. Nearly every conversation I struck up with a deb fluttered around how much weight she’d lost, whether or not she’d fit into her dress, and if her left-footed escort would remember their dance number. A mother figure obsessed and preened over her daughter’s appearance, and a strikingly composed Mistress of Ceremonies (played with keen comedic timing by Catherine C. Ryan) critiqued the girls’ bows with a drill sergeant’s bark.

But beneath all this playful lampooning, I sensed a genuine affection for this nearly bygone culture – if not for its politics, certainly for its aesthetics. The show takes pleasure in all its pageantry, and concedes a sincere love for pretty white women, white dresses, and genteel Southern charm.

Midway through the evening the performance fosters a more traditional audience – performer relationship. The audience splits into groups, each assigned to one debutante, and is instructed to act as their debutante’s stand-in family and cheer her on during her dance routine. From there we’re left to sit back and enjoy the girls’ formal “presentations” and ballroom dance numbers.

The choreography, at first, is enchanting. The couples take the floor one at a time and triple step through whimsical twirls and nimble lifts. The ball, it seems, is going perfectly.

Bit by bit, though, the young debutantes start hitting discordant notes and drumming up unrest. One is noticeably tipsy as she stumbles through her curtsey, and one—the debutante with the fiery feminist streak—has come without a male escort. This particular debutante, we learn, studies Women’s Studies and Documentary Filmmaking at Harvard.

For me, this particular detail—this suggestion that our only progressive-minded debutante found her feminist leanings up North—hints at and reinforces a false but familiar American cultural assumption that the North is inherently more ‘intellectual’ than the hopelessly behind-the-times South, with its unenlightened Christian Universities. For the sake of this show, I wish this character (our heroine for the night) were a product of Southern education. It would seem, in my eyes, a small but significant vote of confidence for modern Southern women.

Decorum finally flies out the window altogether when our Harvard-educated deb begins openly mocking the Mistress of Ceremonies, sitting in men’s laps and performing ‘vulgar’ pantomimes of proper etiquette. One by one the other debs find their own feminist stripes and rally around her, joining in a mocking chant asking the Mistress of Ceremonies, “Am I a lady now?”. They even go so far as to tie the MC up and slap duct tape over her mouth.

In this moment the show’s intentions are made utterly clear, and we understand that this rejection of rigid norms for female behavior is what’s been building all along. Indeed, the ‘taunt’ of ‘Debutaunt’ is out in full force.

For me, this climax arrived just a little bit too soon. My inner spectator almost wanted to see the debs suffer through a bit more cotillion rigmarole, just so that I might celebrate more fully in their triumph. At the least I wish we could see their transformation build with a little more nuance.

But when the lights come up after the final scene and we’re suddenly in the middle of an all-out shimmy & shake dance party, it’s really fun to see the debs (literally) let their hair down. We realize these women are strong, fun, and know how to party. And it’s a good place to be.

For more information, show times and tickets, visit debutauntball.com

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