Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My Patrick Swayze Article for Sun Break

The temptation to make jokes about Patrick Swayze's passing is strong. I understand this instinct, his legacy is burned into the minds of generations of moviegoers. I will pass on these silly puns about "corners" and "the wind," because although his association with iconic ironic '80s nostalgia and cheesy one-liners may damn him to good-hearted ridicule, we all know that he was something greater--Swayze was the most talented movie star of our lifetime and a man who forever transformed our culture.

Not since Gene Kelly has one man destroyed a nation with charisma and charm, but also with a gift for song and a unwavering devotion to dance. There aren't many men in the movie star stratosphere who can claim the triple threat title, sure there was always John Travolta, a terrifically multi-talented performer. But forgive me Mr. Travolta, you are no Swayze.

Gene Kelly believed that the only hope for the American Movie Musical was Swayze. Late in his life he passed the baton on to a Swayze in hopes that he could revive the dying American art form. Swayze was never successful in resurrecting the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-style musical, it was a bygone era that had as much hope in returning to prominence as the Western. Swayze's success in cinema achieved an even higher goal, and what he did for American culture as a whole far surpasses what Gene Kelly had intended. He handed us a gift so great, that it lives on today and for decades to come.

Swayze made it cool to dance again.

Sure people were still bopping and grinding around dance floors. But I'm talking about dancing . Grab your partner, spin her around, lift her up, hold her close and don't you dare let her go, especially if she's above your head eight feet in the air. Swayze brought back an art that had nearly vanished and introduced a whole generation to couples dancing.

He did it by achieving what had seemed impossible in a culture of naysayers--he made dancing look masculine. The art of dance for men had lost its luster, men were chided for dancing for being "girly" or "gay." Women and gay men have always been comfortable with learning to dance, but straight men couldn't seem to come to terms with it. Somehow Swayze could pull off a step-ball-change-high-kick-back-step-triple-pirouette and still look like he was about to kick your ass after brushing the beautiful hair from his face.

Siano displays his Swazye-inspired moves with fellow dancer Laura DiMarco (photo by Victoria VanBruinisse)

Without Swayze you wouldn't see the massive return of ballroom dancing that we enjoy today. And male performers aren't afraid to show off some serious dance moves from fear of being labeled a ninny. Justin Timberlake is a rock-star-sex-god when he dances , Hugh Jackman's dance moves are turning him into a modern day Casanova, and huge droves of young men are packing dance halls and classrooms all in an attempt to prove they are strong, stylish, and masculine.

Now, every girl likes a boy who can dance. Especially if he looks like he might be a bit of a bad-ass underneath with a heart of gold. Dancing is cool again, everyone! Now pay homage to the man who made it possible. Thank you Swayze, the world is a better place having known you. I'm off to work on my triple pirouette.

Mark Siano performs his new comedy cabaret "Back to the Soft Rock" October 9 and 10 at The Triple Door (info/tix). Should you wish to see Swayze's on-screen magic, Central Cinema is presenting Dirty Dancing (though tonight) and Roadhouse (through Thursday). Here's their schedule.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rock Softly Carry a Big Shtick

Seattle Times arts writer

"You guys ready to rock ... softly?"

That question came from singer-dancer-comedian Mark Siano at a jampacked gig at Seattle's Triple Door nightclub in January.

And the answer, apparently, is: Yes, Seattle is ready.

Siano and his six accomplices, the Freedom Dancers ("five beautiful women and one buff gay dude"), have acquired a feverish cult following around town over the past two years with their cheesy dance routines, their even cheesier costume changes and Siano's mocking yet impassioned interpretations of AM radio hits of the 1980s and '90s.

The troupe also has two Bollywood numbers in its repertoire ("the soft rock of the East"), along with several Siano originals: the Kama Sutra-inspired "We Did It Like This, We Did It Like That," the keyboard ballad "Lady Heart" ("I've got to touch your lady heart / Before I touch your lady parts") and a glorious paean to the complications of media-age romantic communication, "Up in Your Inbox."

The 32-year-old Siano is, in short, a very funny guy who, with a little help from his friends, has been reducing Seattle to giggles since the mid-1990s.

Some locals will know him from The Habit, a sketch-comedy troupe as sharp and gifted as they come. Others may have encountered his one-man show, "Pinko Holiday," about his trip to the Beijing Olympics, where he managed to display a political protest sign in the women's basketball arena.

Lately, Siano has curated and hosted a series of Seattle cabarets. The latest, "The Clandestine Cabaret," happens next Friday and Saturday at The Little Theater on Capitol Hill. In the meantime Siano and the Freedom Dancers are working up a big show, with more original tunes by Siano, for The Triple Door in October.

During a recent interview at his studio apartment on Capitol Hill, Siano talked about The Habit, soft rock and other vital matters.

The habit of laughing

Siano was born in Chicago but considers Seattle his hometown. He attended the University of Washington and by age 19 had formed The Habit with fellow students Ryan Dobosh, John Osebold (now of the band/performance outfit "Awesome"), Jeff Schell, Tommy Smith, David Swidler and Luke Thayer. The original name of the troupe paid homage to scientist Humphry Davy, inventor of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Legend has it that Davy once inhaled himself into a coma — from which he emerged a few days later, still laughing.

"We loved that story so much, we called ourselves Humphry's Habit — the habit of getting together and laughing."

In 1998, they shortened it to The Habit. After a greatest-hits show at Seattle's Bathhouse Theater in 2002, they headed for Los Angeles, hoping to get their own TV series. That didn't happen, and by 2006 a downcast Siano was back in Seattle.

"I was going to stop performing in theater and comedy," he recalls. "I was convinced that I was through with it."

He took a day job in a medical clinic where, unlikely as it sounds, the seeds of his future soft-rock "spectaculars" were planted.

"The music that you can listen to — you only get one choice, really. And that's soft rock. It's Warm 106.9 or nothing."

Siano, ever the "jokester," started parodying the clinic's bland musical fare and got "a lot of laughs" from his co-workers. Then he tried out the same routine at some comedy-club open mikes and elicited a similar response.

"So that," he recalls," became my thing: Hey, I'm a soft-rock guy. Different guys, they like hard rock, or they like rap, or they're hip-hop. I'm kind of a soft-rock guy."

What started as a joke became a serious urge to get back onstage. "I caught the bug all over again," he says. "I wanted to sing. I wanted to make people laugh."

No more "wild" shows

Siano's big soft-rock break came when he got a call from local nightclub Re-Bar, asking if he could put together a show in three weeks: "At first I was freaked out. Then I thought: You know, if I cobble together all my old material, grab a bunch of my friends, start a little dance troupe — yeah, I can put on a show in three weeks!"

From there, Siano's new act took off.

The dance routines — class them under the Hectic Calisthenics School of Pop Choreography — are collaborations between Siano and his fellow dancers. Their inspirations include a lot of 1980s videos and repeated viewings of "Flashdance" and "Dirty Dancing." Siano admits that none of them are formally trained dancers. But, he says, they're stage naturals who "can really shake it."

The performer's vocal background consists of doing musicals in high-school and college. Shortly after graduating from the UW, he got gigs at the Village Theatre in Issaquah, but he worries that he may have gotten "too wild" there: "The last show I did, they didn't give me any direction. They just said, 'Just sing the song and get a few laughs.' I got a little too creative. I went out into the audience. I scared the people in the music pit. Once I left the building entirely and came back in through a different entrance. I hope one day they'll have me back. I think I have to convince them that I've grown up since."

As for his new show's song selections, they're more than just a joke to him.

"I know to a lot of people who come to see it, they enjoy it because they think that music is funny. I enjoy it because I really love that kind of music. I enjoy people who sing full voice," he says, "and aren't afraid to say a few cheesy things. Because love can be 'cheesy' — it's OK."

Soft-rock, he notes, with its "soaring" melodies also gives you a chance to show off: "It's not so much about being clever as it is about just being as beautiful as you can."

Still, he's not unaware of certain insidious aspects of the genre.

When I mention recently hearing Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" — a raw slice of psychedelia when it hit the airwaves in 1967 — being played in the hallways of a medical-dental office as though it were off some E-Z listening compilation, Siano pronounces in oracular tones: "Soft rock is a black hole. Anything that isn't deliberately metal will eventually get sucked into soft rock."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Seattle Times Mark Siano Interview and Feature

"Siano is, in short, a very funny guy who, with a little help from his friends, has been reducing Seattle to giggles since the mid-1990s."