Dancers explore the darker side of the Carpenters' story

A drum kit with the Carpenters logo sits at the back of the stage surrounded by stuffed animals in "I hate myself. Will you please love me?"
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

For people of a certain age, the prospect of an evening of Carpenters music probably raises some mixed emotions. The brother sister team of Richard and Karen Carpenter pumped out hit after hit in the 1970s.

However, behind the scenes the Carpenters were troubled. Karen struggled with an eating disorder which was to claim her life in 1983.

That facade of pop music happiness covering a real life tragedy forms the basis of a new dance presentation in Minneapolis this weekend.

Despite the soothing sounds of Karen Carpenter's voice, entering the Arena Dances rehearsal room in downtown Minneapolis is a little jarring.

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Arena Dances Artistic Director Mathew Janczweski (second left) leads his company through a rehearsal of "I hate myself. Will you please love me?" which is based on the music of the Carpenters.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The dancers move around a white drum kit bearing the Carpenters logo, and dodge awkward piles of brightly colored soft toys lying around the room. Fans used to give Karen stuffed animals, and she kept every one of them.

"You know, it's a pretty funny show, but it's also really sad," says Arena Dances Artistic Director Mathew Janczewski.

The Carpenters were part of Janczewski's boyhood. In high school, he was both a loner and lonely. It all came back recently when he went through his parents LPs.

"And I was reminded of being a child and going to the basement and listening to the Carpenters, and just her voice," he says. "I just would cry and hear the words because of her voice."

"Basically the feedback that the residents gave them was 'go farther. You are on the right track, but don't be afraid to push the extremes.'"

Mathew Janczewski began researching the Carpenters, and their huge pop success. He also delved into the other side of the story: their struggle with stardom, and Karen's fatal eating disorder.

"I mean I definitely went deeper into it in reading several books, as well as reading her doctors books, in terms of what he wrote," Janczewski said. "Which was really interesting because it still to this day is a topic doctors are not comfortable with."

He developed a piece called "I hate myself. Will you please love me?" Janczewski discovered he had to introduce his young company members to the Carpenters.

Dancer Rachel Freeburg said as they listened, more and more meaning emerged from the gentle pop.

"The dark side of it," she said. "Like how her voice is sad, and the music is happy. The lyrics are kind of sad, but always with a driving beat or a nice melody to kind of smooth over those dark lyrics, makes it interesting to listen to over and over again."

Stuffed animals litter the Arena Dances stage, representing some of the thousands of soft toys fans presented Karen Carpenter over the years.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

But challenging to perform. Luke Olson-Elm says they are seeking a balance.

"That smile is the front and the movement then creates the layers that are behind the smile," he said. "And so the cheesiness exists but it exists in a world that is dark."

As part of the development of "I hate myself. Will you please love me?" the Arena dancers performed the piece for residents at the Emily program. It provides treatment for people with eating disorders.

The Emily Program's Joe Kelly said the in-patients liked what they saw.

"Basically the feedback that the residents gave them was 'go farther. You are on the right track, but don't be afraid to push the extremes, in how you are portraying this,' because it is such an extreme experience," Kelly says.

Mathew Janczewski
Arena Dances Artistic Director Mathew Janczewski, who has explores issues of wellness in his work in the past says much of it has led up to thesis production based on the music of the Carpenters.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Kelly and other representatives from the Emily Program will talk about eating disorders before this weekend's performances at the Southern Theater.

Despite the tough issues beneath the surface Arena Dances' Mathew Janczewski hopes audiences will find the performance uplifting. He admits part of him is ready to move on, the part that's had Carpenters songs running through his head non-stop for months.

"And I swear I am dreaming Carpenters music as well," he laughed. "Which makes for some crazy dreams."

And that's why his next show will be abstract modern dance.