LAVA’s “encyclopedia” at the Flea Theater

By Jeremy Finch

I saw the Brooklyn-based LAVA Company perform their most recent acrobatics/theater/dance creation encyclopedia at The Flea Theater (through Sunday, June 12; tickets $20) on Thursday, June 9. I’d been to their space a few times to take a class and I read the company’s prominent profile last week in the Wall Street Journal, so I figured I should check it out. I’m not quite sure how to categorize encyclopedia as a piece (I wouldn’t really call it dance or theater), but I left The Flea feeling impressed with what I’d seen. The eight performers–a funky and inviting all-female acrobatics troupe–couldn’t help but share their infectious enthusiasm for movement and play, and the audience was enthused and appreciative for the full 60 minutes.

The evening was composed of seven or eight short vignettes, ranging from static trapeze and hoop diving to live music and (an excellent and memorable) acro-adagio. While the performers didn’t quite seem to have high-level circus training (Molly Chanoff was probably the most engaging), they executed their skills well and obviously had deep trust for one another. They used music (both recorded and performed live) to their benefit and wisely drew on choreographic tools like repetition to truly showcase the effort exerted at each moment.

At first, I was a bit confused by the opening act (hoop-diving) because it was all done in the dark. I later realized (after rereading the WSJ article) that it was because it was performed topless. Ultimately, that piece was all lost on me because I could barely see the movements, let alone their bodies. I was confused by the obvious lack of lighting and I could just see moving shapes and hear the crash of bodies hitting the floor.

In terms of title, I figured that “encyclopedia” must have referred partly to the set design (a giant stack of dusty tomes occupied the rear of the stage), but it also seemed to refer to the shared mix of physical training and interests that each performer brought to the group. The program notes contained a particular assortment of entries and definitions, from warrior “Amazons” to “Lava”, but also “Jill Johnston” and “Rainbow”. While it wasn’t overly explicit in the different vignettes, there was a clear feminist undercurrent to the evening, which often emerged through the music choices (“You Don’t Own Me” stuck with me in particular).

To me, the presence of such strong, gutsy female performers raised two responses. First, it made me think of comparisons with Elizabeth Streb’s company, and the ways in which STREB and LAVA, while similar in genre, are fundamentally different from each other. While Streb’s choreography seeks to distill pure action and physics, it seems to ultimately strip away all sense of humanness and personal identity from her performers. In LAVA’s case, the performers felt like fully-formed individuals and they looked like they were actually having fun doing what they were doing. They looked physically different from each other, clearly had individual areas of expertise and allowed bits of their personalities to come through via their faces, voices and choreography. While I see Streb’s work as subversive and feminist in the way that it asks her male and female performers to blindly take equal physical risks, I liked how LAVA acknowledged the power of having an all female cast and explicitly embraced the different ways in which it might be interpreted. That’s not to say that LAVA’s approach is qualitatively better or “more feminist”, but I just found that it engaged me on a more human level. How can one not acknowledge the uniqueness of this sort of work? How many other all-female acro groups out there can you name?

Second, encyclopedia, made me think about the ways in which traditional circus stuff is so deeply skewed towards stereotypical heterosexual, male/female dynamics. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than seeing elite circus performers perform mind-blowing physical feats and then arbitrarily try to act out a gratuitous heterosexual love story or an overblown macho fight sequence. But because that sort of male-centered convention is so common, there’s a element in watching LAVA that feels novel and kind of strange.

Ultimately, while I’ve written a lot so far about gender and circus, it wouldn’t be fair of me to frame encyclopedia as simply a “female acro production”. encyclopedia is a great show, in and of itself. Full stop. LAVA’s an interesting and original company, and their studio is a neighborhood staple in Park Slope for those who attend the classes often. I’m glad I went to The Flea to see the show: It impressed me and made me think, even after I left. I think that’s a pretty good sign of original art.

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