LAVA’s Earth Moving Experience

Muscularity, flexibility, and stamina, with palpable warmth and trust

On opening night of LAVA’s “[w]HOLE: The [whole] History of Life on Earth,” I ended up with two bruised knees and a fat lip that could make Angelina Jolie weep with envy, and I can’t even win street cred by saying I got caught up in the troupe’s acrobatics. Yes, there was audience participation––a short, sweet, decidedly safe segment. No, I merely took a nasty spill while strolling down to The Flea Theater. It sure hurt to smile––a bit of a liability at any concert by Sarah East Johnson and her scruffily adorable colleagues. If it wouldn’t hurt you too much to smile, do hurry over (carefully) before this show closes.

Like other pieces conceived and directed by Johnson, “[w]HOLE” takes its inspiration from her fascination with geology and earth’s evolution––in this case, volcanic formation, magnetic polarity reversal, and rock cycles, all illustrated via the interplay of dancers’ bodies. But before you say, “Igneous? Sedimentary? Metamorphic? Wait! I’m a dance geek, not a science geek,” don’t worry. No test follows, and you’ll have a good time. This is LAVA, after all––six confident women who demonstrate that smart and strong are sexy.

Sexier still is LAVA’s set-up at The Flea. Limited seating rings a tiny performance space, placing the audience close enough to feel the thump of bodies tumbling on mats. The trapeze that hung low, perhaps no more than four feet in front of my seat, offered equally visceral perspectives as partners dangled, writing hieroglyphics in the air with their interlocking limbs. Sometimes a performer would turn a friendly gaze your way or ask for help with a minor costume change. And anyone bold enough could simply lean forward to handle the troupe’s equipment and props, although my audience seemed to be on its best behavior.

“[w]HOLE” evolves, easing its way into existence while the audience assembles. Taking seats, the audience observes a stack of white gymnasium mats, a group of circus hoops, and a hiking backpack stuffed with practical and whimsical props. Natalie Agee, Molly Chanoff, Eugenia Chiappe, Diana Y Greiner, Rebecca Stronger, and Johnson warm up, periodically pausing to greet friends. They flip up into impeccable handstands and test other moves with partners. Music blares as a slowly twirling disk in one overhead corner catches a video projection of rocky landscape, lava flow, and geologists venturing out in bulky protective gear.

The unfolding performance serves as a fine introduction to LAVA for newcomers and as comfort food for the faithful. The sextet does all the things we’ve come to love it for––jump through hoops in endless variations, show off new ways to weave around and lock with one another on the trapeze, and clamber over each other as if their limbs were lined with Velcro to create many-headed, many-limbed monsters. Displaying exceptional muscularity, flexibility, and stamina, they also manage to relate to one another with palpable warmth and trust. If the spoken word material by Sini Anderson and Capital B sounds inconsistent––some of it thuds; some soars––take refuge in the cinematic mystery of the movement and visual design.

In the spirit of evolution, the conduct of each performance of “[w]HOLE” derives from some set material and some chance operations. Also, midway through, Johnson invites each audience member to get up and claim a seat in another part of the room to view the work from a new angle. On opening night, this occurred after a large group of us had already been beckoned forth to perform a few movement experiments. During the post-show Q&A, Johnson explained her intent.

“It’s a constant reminder that the earth that seems so solid and stable is always moving and changing. That’s thrilling, isn’t it? Nothing you can hold onto!”

All dance can provide a similar shaking up but rarely does so as directly. Perhaps Johnson also intended to suggest that in a time when fundamentalists have put reason, free thought, and science under siege, it’s thrilling to realize that ideas, beliefs, and consciousness can continue to evolve. Everybody get up (carefully)! Free your ass and your mind will follow!

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