Ivo Dimchev, a queer performance artist from Bulgaria whose brash charm has been known to compel people to take their clothes off and join him onstage — it happened at Joe’s Pub last month — has questions. And more questions.
Would you choose to have a monument of Madonna or of Marina Abramovic in Washington Square Park? What does a show need most: good music, good choreography or a good story? Who would you rather have sex with: Biden, Putin or the Dalai Lama?
For “In Hell With Jesus/Top 40,” opening at La MaMa on Thursday, Dimchev is full of queries, including one that swings back to his title: Would you rather be in hell with Jesus or in heaven with Trump?
At La MaMa Dimchev combines “In Hell With Jesus,” which premiered last year in Vienna, and “Top 40,” a mix of scenes and elements from previous shows. In this interactive anti-musical, Dimchev plays a character holding auditions for his next musical. For the New York iteration, he has no interest in repeating himself. “I’m experimenting,” he said after a rehearsal a couple weeks ago at La MaMa. “The thing is we don’t have much time with the cast. I got the people a few days ago.”
Or so he thought. Five singers backed out, two as recently as last week, because of its sexual content. (You have to be 18 or older to see the show.) But now the cast is set: Joining him are Chris Tanner, an actor, drag artist and La MaMa veteran; the singers Xavier Smith and Cassondra James; the writer, dramaturg and performer Andrew Fremont-Smith; and the musician Louis Schwadron.
The roots of “In Hell With Jesus” began during the days of the pandemic. Dimchev spent lockdown in Bulgaria, where he began a series of living room concerts. “I was like, I need to find my way to go to the audience,” Dimchev said. “I’m not going online. Where are people? The audience is in their living rooms.”
Dimchev said that an hour after posting a notice on social media, “I was already in somebody’s house singing — and they were so happy having me.”
His rich voice, with its startling control and vocal range, can melt defenses. It seems to pour out of his body, which can take over the stage with fraught intensity or become delicate, even fragile. In a way, it is the state of Dimchev’s body that directs his voice. But when he was performing his home concerts in New York he found that singing alone wasn’t enough.
The singer Xavier Smith, top left, in a rehearsal. Dimchev settled on the cast after five singers backed out, including two last week.Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times
“I wanted to interact on a more deeply dramaturgical level,” he said. “I wrote all these questions that are spread around culture, sex, psychology, politics. I felt complete somehow. I’m not just entertaining my hosts in their houses, but also triggering something that is all a part of our reality.”
His questions — which he summed up as “fake dilemmas that most people will never even think of” — stimulate the imagination of the audience. “Even if I don’t ask the people in the audience directly, I know that they are making their decisions in their head,” Dimchev said. “We don’t go deeper in that. I don’t want to go deeper. For me, it’s more showing a spectrum of directions, of possibilities.”
In the show, audience members will be invited to do more than imagine their responses to his questions. They will be paid for performative tasks, which include reading a monologue or, in one case, enacting a scene from Dimchev’s “The P-project,” in which two volunteers take off their clothes and simulate sex onstage. All payments are in cash; Dimchev said that the show pays out about $1,000 to the audience each night, half of that for the sex scene.
Dimchev understands such propositions are risky. “We don’t know how far people go, but I like this clash between the unexpected, the clumsy,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
He added, “I think La MaMa is the right place for these kinds of experiments.”
And La MaMa knows what it is getting itself into. In 2011, Dimchev, who is H.I.V. positive, presented his acclaimed “Lili Handel” at La MaMa, in which he played an aging androgynous diva who, at one point, draws a vial of blood onstage and sells it to the highest bidder.
Mia Yoo, La MaMa’s artistic director, will never forget Dimchev’s commitment to being completely in the moment during that performance. “It really does make us think about what it means to be in that room together,” she said. “What is that performative act? Who is that human being that’s up there revealing something of themselves or putting themselves out there in a way that feels so raw, and so like it could have fallen apart?”
Dimchev elicits a rare kind of trust as he cultivates a close-knit community with audiences. When he invited the crowd to shake their breasts (he used another word) onstage at his recent Joe’s Pub performance, Anita Durst, an arts philanthropist and a founder of Chashama, which in part helps to provide unused real estate for artists, followed suit, wanting “to be closer and participate in the energy of the night,” she said.
Durst plans on bringing her 18-year-old son and his friends to “In Hell With Jesus” so they can experience Dimchev’s work, which “will open them up to another dimension in a way,” she said. “I’ve never heard anybody sing the way he does and use his body to emote emotion. It transforms your being in the moment.”
When Dimchev was growing up in Bulgaria, that brand of excess caused him pain. “I was performing all the time, and I was disturbing everybody with my performance,” he said. “I started disturbing my schoolmates, so I got a lot of abuse because of this. For me, the schoolroom was a stage. I had to pay a big price to explore my art, to explore my weirdness and my extravagance.”
Life became a little easier when he went to theater school. But even as an adult, he said, he realized that the cost never fully goes away. “I’m still paying this price in Bulgaria as an artist, as a queer artist, as a whatever an artist,” he said. “But I think I’m trained from my childhood that freedom costs. It’s not for free. I’m OK paying any price for my freedom. Almost any.”
Dimchev never wants to feel ashamed or guilty about anything — either in art or life. “Life is raw,” he said. “But at the same time, life can be a piece of art, it can be a masterpiece of art. This relation between rawness and mastery for me is very important to always be present in the work.”
In Bulgaria, where he is well known, Dimchev said he was surrounded by resistance and homophobia — even death threats. “I realized I don’t want to do this war, this battle,” he said. “I’m tired of doing it already three years. So I’ll just go to a place where I’m appreciated.”
Dimchev recently moved to New York City, after living in Amsterdam, Brussels and for a brief period in Los Angeles. “It’s an amazing place for music,” he said, “But I was always so strangely depressed in L.A. I thought the relaxation, the kind of chillness of L.A. would balance my neurotic side, but it didn’t work that way. I get more depressed.”
New York is different. “The city fits my nature,” he said. “I move at the same pace. You do five things at the same time. It’s scary, but this is how I am. And New York is the same.”