Being the decorator of a bonafide genius isn’t for the faint at heart. At least that’s what I imagine when considering the dynamics between Machine Dazzle and MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the Genius Grant, recipient Taylor Mac, known for his genre-bending drag performances.
Just weeks before their Holiday Sauce performance at the Kennedy Center on December 12, I spoke with Dazzle, Matthew Flower, responsible for envisioning award-winning masterpieces and costumes worn by Mac onstage, and by Diane von Fürstenberg and Cara Delevingne at the 2019 Met Gala.
The holiday-themed performance is set to feature Mac upending traditional Christmas expectations with Dazzle, music director Matt Ray, a band of eight and NPR’s Ari Shapiro.
In the lead up to this week’s show, Machine Dazzle is the definition of booked and busy.
“I don’t have time to have goals because I’m already busy,” he says laughing.
Between shows at the Guggenheim and on tour with Taylor Mac, and a host of other engagements, time for him is truly a priceless commodity.
Fortunately, while on location at Harvard University, co-directing and creating costumes for a queer cabaret show featuring six students who provide commentary on Harvard politics, I’m given time to hear of the artist’s thoughts on the holidays, why Holiday Sauce is a must-see and how Dazzle’s design style distinguishes from contemporaries.
On Tap: How do you select your projects?
Machine Dazzle: Any opportunity to exercise the brain is good. I appreciate a challenge and I love meeting all these interesting people along the way and doing a project like this at Harvard allows me to do all those things. I am a yes person; I will always say yes. Unless I’ve worked with someone before and it just wasn’t great. I love new adventures and new people, but the job must be interesting and challenging. I need to be able to do what I want to do. I can’t have anyone who’s too precious about anything. There needs to be room for a layer of art, that may or may not necessarily exist in the script.
OT: What’s novel or special about your contribution to the production on which you collaborate?
MD: I’m an artist in the realm of costume designers. What designers don’t really have is an agenda, they don’t necessarily have a story to tell. They are visual; they are engineers. An artist takes it further and tells a story and makes some social commentary. In other words, no one can tell me how to do my art. You can tell someone to make something for Bob’s character, but I bring a layer of art to the production.
OT: How do you explain the success behind your partnership with Taylor Mac?
MD: Taylor lets me do whatever I want. Never once has he told me what to do. He trusts me to bring something interesting to the table. A lot of people really love his costumes and that’s thanks to me, and thanks to him for letting me make my work.
OT: What did Taylor Mac say when bringing Holiday Sauce to you?
MD: The first year, Taylor Mac came to me and said we’re doing a holiday show and we need two costumes. I knew that I wanted to distinguish these costumes from other costumes I’d made for [Mac] in other productions. I definitely wanted them to have a holiday flare, or my take on holiday. So, the first thing I thought of when thinking of the holiday was naughty and nice. I made one costume that was very naughty, and I made one that was kind of nice. DC’s show is different from the past two years, though, because he’s wearing four costumes this time. In addition to the other looks, I thought of two faces of the kitchen, one where you’re in the kitchen baking cookies, the other outside in a winter wonderland.
OT: Are the holidays a special time for you?
MD: My birthday is during the holidays, it’s December 30. People would always say, “Oh, no! You got cheated!” But they had it all wrong. When I was a child maybe it felt like that, but the truth is it’s the best time of year to have a birthday because everybody is in celebration mode. It’s a beautiful time of year to do anything. I’m not a religious person, I don’t believe in God. I believe the god is the self, the highest self-possible. We have the universe we have each other, we have microcosm and we have macrocosm. I believe in the winter solstice. I believe in the changing seasons. In the darkest day of the year, which lends itself to the season of giving, when people are in need. That’s what I think about during the holidays. [However] I love certain rituals and traditions. I love the decorated tree, I love leaves, I love lights, I love caroling, I love the onslaught of winter and preparing for the next year. It’s a really great time of year to have a party!
OT: What’s makes Holiday Sauce different from other seasonal productions?
Machine Dazzle: We keep building the show, every time we tour, we make it bigger and better. Plus, we’re bringing it to cities that we’ve never been to before. No one in DC has seen it before. There’s a choir in it and we want the choir to get bigger. I want the scenic elements to get bigger. The costumes are going to change and get bigger and better. It’s going to be more of an extravaganza.
OT: What’s the secret sauce that has your audience or following growing with each additional year?
Machine Dazzle: You just have to keep coming back to see. It’s like the people who go to see the [Radio City] Rockettes show every year. It’s not that different every year. But you still go. They do it every year and people live for it. And if you can go and look at that every f**king year you can go to our show which is actually changing and getting better.
Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce is showing at the Kennedy Center in the Opera House on December 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39-$129 and here.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org