Sock and Jaw Journey to an Icon Back to New York Beautiful Dreamer “Native”
Dance         In the spring semester of 2007, I taught an undergraduate course for our Film and Media Arts Program entitled “King Kong in Film and Performance.” I designed the course to focus on Kong as a dynamic cultural site that provided clues to human desires and anxieties throughout history. From communism and the depression in the 1930s to espionage and the nuclear threat in the 1960s to feminism and the environment in the 1970s to militarism and the marvels of modern science in the 1980s and beyond, we followed Kong on a 75 year journey. However, what we discovered as we watched each film and discussed its underlying themes was that the primary story of Kong remained the same decade after decade. In essence, the class wound up doing a structural analysis of the story of Kong as we discussed the films over the course of the semester. We found that certain character archetypes and plot developments, even scenes, were necessary in a “Kong” film. This discovery shaped “The Life and Times of King Kong” immeasurably. 
        As part of the course, I required a couple of “performances” as we made our way through the complicated terrain of “Kong.” In the first assignment, students were asked to create their own tangible representations of Kong. I believe I said he could be made out of anything they could think of – that the sky was the limit. My examples ranged from tire parts to Coke bottles. I was amazed at the creativity that emerged from this assignment and the insight each provided and looked forward to the second assignment, a representation of any scene from any of the films.
        In the second assignment, many students chose the fight scene between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus Rex (or Godzilla in the Japanese films) as the scene they wanted to represent. Obviously, this particular structural element of the mythic story stood out for the class. Whether through digital video or live performance, the students’ interpretations of this scene were clever, critical, and often hilarious. However, one stood out above the rest – a dance off between the two monsters.
        The students’ performance of the dance off used primitive cardboard cut-out costumes and contemporary music and moves, but as I watched the scene, I realized that the ultimate popular “dance off as fight” already existed in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video. I knew I had a scene for my future production about King Kong. 
        Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” emerged on the scene in 1983, during the King of Pop’s height of fame. Directed by Bob Giraldi and choreographed by Michael Peters, the gang “fight” inspired by West Side Story was an immediate hit upon its debut on the fledgling MTV. One might say that “Beat It,” rather than the later “Thriller,” based on George Romero’s 1968 cult film Night of the Living Dead, sealed Jackson’s fate as “The King of Pop.”
	Once I realized the importance of the fight scene to the Kong narrative, I knew that these famous
kings had to meet. The artistic choice fulfilled many of the criteria for and contributed to many arguments made by the production. Here are a few: 
1.	The fight is an essential element in the story.
2.	The additional lizard-like prehistoric beast is an essential character in the story.
3. The “natives” and “explorers/filmmakers” primary conflict is over “turf,” just as the gangs in “Beat It” or even West Side Story.
4. Kong had morphed from a horrifying monster in 1933 to a recognizable, even lovable, popular figure in 75 years. Thus, replacing a fight with a dance followed that trend. (Interestingly, Michael Jackson’s popular journey might be seen as just the opposite of this.) 
5.	A dance-off rather than a choreographed fight marks my playful approach to exploring the icon.
6.	The icon is always accessed first through the popular. 
7.	A structural element may be a placeholder for our own critical insights/obsessions. Therefore, the underlying themes (communism/feminism/militarism) found throughout the Kong films over the decades emerge from the tenacious narrative structure. 
8.	An icon is an icon is an icon. 
9.	The dance points to the ways our mediatized memories frame our live experiences.
10.  The form of the musical and/or music video and/or a dance number is pleasurable, and pleasure     
       is a valuable endeavor!
The final two assertions deserve further elaboration.
        First of all, I knew instinctually that this scene would “play.” The scene made so many comments and/or connections that an audience member only needed to get one to enjoy it. Primarily, the scene said, “You know this dance. You’ve seen this dance before. Play in the back and forth, the past and present, of this moment. It’s easy. We’ve made it easy for you.” That said, I don’t think the choice was an obvious one. An infinite number of interpretive fight scenes exist in the potential of conception and rehearsal. However, “Beat It” encouraged metaphoric, reflexive play in a way other choices might not. The choice cast the audience back to their memories of the video while simultaneously grounding them in the present telling. Possibilities of engagement exist on multiple levels. For example, one member of the audience may value the scene for its attention to choreographic detail while another might enjoy the clever way the scene fits in the overall narrative. Many seemed to enjoy watching non-dancers attempt a dance they may have attempted themselves, back in the day. Regardless, I guess the majority of the audience experienced this moment through at least a double-lens. That is, they evaluated the scene in the moment of their watching and also based on their experience with the iconic video.
         Finally, in her essay, “In Defense of Pleasure: Musical Theatre History in the Liberal Arts [A Manifesto],” Stacy Wolf charges us to “Use pleasure as a way in” (55). That is, while “Beat It” attempts to provide an audience pleasure, it may also draw our attention to “the ideology of aesthetics and to the historical formation of taste publics” (55). Simply, the pleasure we might take in the reconstruction of “Beat It” in the story of King Kong is socially and historically contingent and complicates the easy binary of high and low culture. The King Kong of today is not the fearsome primate who hit the screen and the public’s imagination 75 years ago. In fact, Kong is now an icon bound to the complexities of mediatized consumer culture where pleasure is valuable indeed. By paying homage to that which is irredeemably popular through “Beat It,” we attempt to thrill as well as mark the place where we find the icon today.