Unlike Martha Graham Cracker, the no-holds-barred, cabaret-singing drag queen that he plays, Dito van Reigersberg is soft spoken with a boyish gentleness about him. Maybe that’s the real him, a man who possesses zero similarities to his bold and brash alter ego. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that he was on a respite from his busy touring act, exploring bucolic Maine when we spoke.
“It’s so bea-youuuu-tiful …. Soooooooo nice,” he effused.
Serenity aside, he was actually up there to work. Not to perform, but to help friends convert their antique barn into a dance studio. Although it sounded like a plot straight out of a 1940’s MGM musical, the task seemed fitting for this slim, reserved dancer/actor/singer who transforms into a brazen Technicolor goddess on stage.
Van Reigersberg is a bit of an icon in Philadelphia — and Martha Graham Cracker undeniably is. A founding artistic director of Philly’s Pig Iron Theatre Company, van Reigersberg is well known in and around town for his own acting and producing. But when he pulls on that blonde wig, shimmies his 6’2” frame into a form-fitting satin gown and slides his size-12 men’s feet into size-14 ladies’ platform stilettos, Dito fades away momentarily while Martha comes to life.
A self-described “different kind of drag queen,” Martha isn’t afraid to bare her chest, metaphorically, or her chest hairs, literally, on stage. She also forgoes shaving her long legs. But what really sets her apart is that she sings — really sings, not lip syncs. And sings well. Anything from Aretha Franklin to Prince to Led Zeppelin could be on the musical menu during a performance with her band, The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret, which is comprised of Andrew Nelson on bass, Victor Fiorillo on keyboards, Ned Sonstein on drums, and Rich Hill on guitar.
“One of the things I like — in terms of the style of drag — is that I really do feel there is something both triumphant and convincing in my performance,” van Reigersberg said of Martha. “And there’s failure — well, not a failure — but something can go wrong. And that’s all part of it — the technical difficulties.
“Some nights you just don’t screw the mic stand tight and SCHUUUUUNNNNNK! It goes down. And I’m so glad it just happened,” he said, explaining that it adds to the banter. “There’s a humanity to it (the performance). It’s emotional, vulnerable and raw — there’s no way to fake that. You gotta be present, you gotta do it.”
Even after 14 years of playing Martha, the act has not gotten stale to van Reigersberg or to his audiences, which he considers to be a large part of the show.
“So much is improvised and taken off of actions (provided by) the audience … and that’s part of the excitement. The audience is feeling me take the leap.”
That “leap” could be meant quite literally, as Martha is known to hop off stage at any given moment to walk among her audience and plop down in some unsuspecting male lap.
When Martha visits Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa’s Music Box at 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2, the show may take a different turn.
The MGC Cabaret is accustomed to playing smaller, more intimate venues in Philly, New York City (where they often play at Joe’s Pub), Boston, California and Austin, Texas, among other locales. The Music Box, which seats 900, is not huge by any concert hall standard, but it is big enough to lose some of the intimacy that a Martha Graham Cracker show is so well known for.
But van Reigersberg isn’t worried.
“I’m excited-slash-nervous. This is a big venue, a big space. I’ll try to keep audience interaction as part of it,” he said. “It’s easier in a smaller venue to be confident that people are able to see what’s happening, even if they’re tucked in corner.
“In bigger venue you have to spend time on stage — the way God intended,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “(But) I think I have to go into the crowd. Martha doesn’t want anyone to feel safe. She wants people to think she can pounce on them at any time.”
In fact, passivity and politeness are not encouraged if you are seated at a Martha Graham Cracker performance.
“This show doesn’t allow you to sit back and think, ‘Oh, this is a lovely cabaret show,’” van Reigersberg said in a mock decorous tone of voice.
“I’m gonna be active, so you’re going to be active,” he added enthusiastically.
This is the group’s “first Atlantic City sojourn,” which makes one wonder why they haven’t been to A.C. before, since it’s a town that seems like a no-brainer for an act such as this. Van Reigersberg had no real explanation for why it took so long for the MGC Cabaret to play down the shore. He simply chalked it up as being “just one of those things.”
The MGC Cabaret’s “big repertoire of music” helps them keep things fresh with constantly rotating setlists. For Borgata, van Reigersberg said that the band will perform two new songs, but teasingly did not reveal them. Chances are, however, you’ve heard them before — just not the way the Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret does them.
“We take a familiar song and … put our stamp on it … to make you hear it in a different way,” he said, adding that the band will regularly rehearse new ways to treat a song, whether by slowing it down or changing the key. “Each time we try something new, something different gets revealed (in the song).”
Because of the revolving repertoire and the penchant for improvisation, a Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret show is never the same. Each performance is like a work of art that will never be replicated again. Van Reigersberg likens it to surfing, a metaphor perhaps used purposely in advance of his Jersey Shore trip.
“It’s almost like we’re the wave and she (Martha) is surfing on us … and every time she surfs, it’s going to be different. And that’s why people want to be there — it will never be the same. It’s daring and maybe a little stupid … but other times it’s comedic and kind of campy fun.”
However it turns out, van Reigersberg believes strongly that live theater — any live theater — is important, not just for the performer, but for the audience, too.
“I don’t want to sound too highfalutin, but when live theater feels really alive and (an audience) is sharing … you realize how little of the lifestyles we live puts us in any real, kind of elbow-to-elbow, sweaty context. But it’s so important.
“And you’ll find that live performance is more exciting than anything you can find on your iPhone.”
The Martha Graham of Martha Graham Cracker
Dito van Reigersberg studied at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, so he chose to name his drag queen character after Graham but “with the ridiculous ‘Cracker’ after it.” He never met the Mother of Modern Dance, though, as she had died before he was a student there.
“She was a mythic figure — almost like a Norma Desmond figure,” he said, comparing Graham to the famous “Sunset Boulevard” character.
“She was a lonely genius. She was considered such an incredibly radical artist who changed the face of dance. But she had bad luck in love. There’s just something about her story — I guess I’m a sentimental fool ... but there’s something about a genius who is also lonely.
“As a drag queen, it sounds like something you’d want to tap into.”