Almanac Dance Circus Theater – curiosity and amazement

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal | photo by Daniel Kontz

Philly’s own Almanac Dance Circus Theater sets sail with a curious and entertaining show, Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes, for a 17-performance run at the Painted Bride as part of this year’s Fringe Festival. A collaborative reworking of their original 2015 production of the same name, it’s now directed by Annie Wilson with a new original score by Mel Hsu and a visual art installation by Clancy Philbrick.

The production charts the journey of a freshly formed quartet of earnest but inexperienced sailors, who, having had the good fortune to acquire a boat, enthusiastically hoist the sails and set out to start a new world together. The performance space evokes the narrow deck of a ship, and large, actual sails are rigged-up along the port side. It’s tight and cozy, and the audience is stowed-away inside the vessel.

Before the show begins, audience members climb a flight of stairs to a lofted gallery to view Philbrick’s installation that includes fluffy white clouds suspended by pulleys, visions of sea and sky, sailing logbooks (all the way through Day 547), as well as props and costumes that will become part of the performance.

Almanac is a dance “circus” theater, and their inventive and amazing acrobatics are front and center in this production. At the beginning of the journey, their antics are playful and humorous. The cast – Nicole Burgio, Nick Gillette, Ben Grinberg, and Adam Kerbel – launch one another effortlessly skyward and work together with their bodies to form breathtakingly beautiful shapes. “We have become one organism,” they proclaim. All the while, composer and musician Hsu is grooving upstage, a mystical sonorous presence.

Further into their voyage, the crew encounters increasing hardships, but no matter, for “when there is no food we’ll drink tea.” Thus begins an evocative and graceful tea ceremony that features an astonishing delivery of a tea set from the loft overhead. Saucers come sliding down a sail and cups glide down a string by their handles. Balancing the cups and saucers sideways on their faces, the famished group executes a dance of fragile longing.

From here, the story of these seafarers takes some darker twists: sexual dynamics shift, time goes backwards and forwards, and the captain becomes increasingly zealous. As they sail further away from the known world, the audience is left to wonder where the foursome’s cultish isolationism will lead them.

About Jane Fries

Originally from the west coast, Jane Fries pursued undergraduate studies in dance at San Diego State University, where she got her start writing about dance for the student newspaper. After an escapade as a correspondent for Dance Magazine in the south of France, she went on to earn her MA in dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Jane's subsequent explorations in non-theatrical dance forms led her to take up the practice of yoga. She has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1996, and has had the great pleasure to study Iyengar yoga with Joan White. Jane's writing reflects her background in dance history and interest in documentation and preservation.

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