Five years ago Chicago choreographer Peter Carpenter, who was 22 and on the verge of graduating from Northwestern, tried to kill himself. “I took a lot of over-the-counter sleeping pills, and I remember being in a delirious haze and wondering if I was still alive or dead.” His roommate found him stumbling around the house and took him to the hospital. “I just have these horrible memories of nurses telling me to sit down, and me not being able to understand what they were saying or not understanding that I wasn’t sitting down.” He says now that his suicide attempt was an expression of fear. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I belonged, how I was going to feed myself.”
Carpenter had grown up in Grant, Michigan, population 700, where his father struggled to run a small organic farm, and where the only form of arts education at the high school was band. As one of the few out gay men in his freshman class at Northwestern, Carpenter had felt overwhelmed and alienated, though it was there that he fell in love with dance and saw the possibilities for mixing dance and theater.
Carpenter’s suicide attempt drew him closer to Lynne Blom, one of his dance teachers, who was undergoing treatment for bone cancer at the same hospital where he went for therapy. They regularly talked about dance, about performance, about his reasons for trying to commit suicide. Blom, who died less than six months later, encouraged him to take his work seriously. “What do you want to do?” he remembers her asking. “Do you just want to be in stuff?”
Their conversations spurred Carpenter to create what he considers his first mature work, a movement-based performance piece titled When I Say That I’m Queer Does It Frighten You? “It’s a duet for a monologuist and dancer,” he says. “The last line of the monologue–from a text by writer David Wojnarowicz–goes, ‘But I say there are certain politicians who had better get fucking dogs and higher fucking fences and more complex security alarms for their homes.’ It’s pretty in-your-face.”
The piece attracted the notice of Xsight! Performance Group’s Brian Jeffery and Tim O’Slynne, who added the piece to their repertoire. A year later Carpenter joined the company.
Carpenter has since become one of Chicago’s most prolific choreographers, having done, among other things, the choreography for eight plays, including Roadworks Productions’ rock version of Orestes. His latest dance-performance work, Hello, Blonde Doctor–part of the program that opens the “Nights of the Blue Rider Sex-fest”–mixes dance, monologues, and video in portraying a heartbroken gay man who compulsively replays in his head scenes from a love affair gone wrong. “The piece is about thwarted and unrequited love and the idea of the blond doctor–the beautiful, rich, well-educated, cultured, gym-body man we all dream about. I always work through my shit in rehearsals or in performance. Hopefully it’s not apparent.”
Hello, Blonde Doctor starts at 8 PM Fridays and Saturdays, May 9 through 17, at the Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted. Tickets are $10, $8 for students. For more information, call 312-733-4668. –Jack Helbig
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Peter Carpenter by J.B. Spector.