LAVA’s “Atlas” at Dixon Place

The LAVA acrobatics company performs Atlas at Dixon Place in New York City on December 3, 2011. Photo by Angela Jimene

By Jeremy Finch

I love circus arts. But there’s something about going to the circus and watching world-class circus performers that sometimes bothers me. Sometimes you can sense that a particular performer was born into the circus, or has been training in a speciality since (what seems like) they were five years old. Often times, these people come from countries where children are funneled towards circus school and away from regular classes. Their bodies and bones bend in ways that adult bodies and bones should not, and there’s always a question in my mind: Are these performers really doing what they love, or did someone else choose this path for them? If these people had had more typical childhoods, would they have joined the circus later anyways?

It was with this mind that I came to see LAVA’s Atlas, the Brooklyn-based acro-dance-theater company’s latest production at Dixon Place (through December 11; tickets $15/$12). As far as I can tell, none of the eight-person all female cast was born into the circus. In fact, they all seem like regular adults, albeit ones with strong arms and a knack for hanging upside down. Except for Sarah East Johnson (the company’s director), none of the performers had particularly impressive circus skills or tricks. They were not bad, to be sure, but they were fairly basic for the most part. What the group did have was personality, humor and a magnetic sense of charm.

I guess that’s what makes LAVA’s performers more interesting. They don’t seem to want to be considered a circus company, nor do they seem to want to make strictly dance or theater. The eight women comprise a diverse and genuinely enthusiastic group of people who draw on a wide range of influences (hence the titles Atlas and Encyclopedia) to make original performance vignettes. Without a doubt, some of Lava’s most interesting moments are the ones that combine movement with singing and live music. Even while I tuned out of the less-interesting tumbling or higher-energy group sections in “Atlas”, I found myself repeatedly drawn in and mesmerized by the sections that featured the singing of Mamie Minch, the show’s musical collaborator.

The highlight of the evening for me was a static trapeze duo between Johnson and Molly Chanoff, done to a live cover of “Killing the Blues.” Johnson and Chanoff, with Minch’s added vocals, sing to one another (“swinging the world by the tail…”) as they dangle precariously up above the audience, slowly grasping at hands, ropes and legs. There was something clear and captivating hearing these two people sing while being upside down, blood rushing to their faces and muscles straining to stay connected. They knew that there was no need to rush, and you could tell that each person fully trusted in the other.

I felt that these slower-paced sections with music and singing in Atlas shone brightest of all. I’m not sure how to describe it, but there’s some amazing alchemy that reveals itself when you combine the the sound of a beautiful singing voice with an element of physical danger.

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