Erica Sherman as the Moon Maiden. Photo by John Cornicello
For two weekends, the Cabiri, Seattle’s own mythology-themed aerial circus, presents its annual Ghost Game performance. This year’s show, Beneath a Wing Darkened Sky, is a collection of five myths from around the world that each involves some kind of creature from above. This is the sixth annual Ghost Game, but this year director John Murphy commissioned four guest choreographers: Matt Henley, Susan Bienczycka, Cyrus Khambatta, and Erin Simons, for the earth-bound dance portions of these stories. Sam Alverez, in collaboration with the Cabiri, is responsible for the aerial choreography in each vignette, and without fail it thrills and entertains with feats of high-flying strength and flexibility.
The Cabiri has completely transformed the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center Theater into a tasteful dessert-theater experience. Audience members are seated at candle-lit tables while costumed wait-staff serve drinks and dessert. Aerial apparatuses of all kinds dangle from the ceiling, and performers in elaborate Japanese costumes fold paper cranes on stage to set the mood for the first story: the myth of the Moon Maid.
It is hard to tell where the aerial choreography stops and Henley’s dance choreography begins. The performers seamlessly transition from floor to trapeze, telling the passionate love story of a fisherman and a fallen moon maiden. Lights, by Sara Torres, and sound, by Vasilis J. Fotopoulos, are also used beautifully to communicate the story. The dancers flow like a moving sculpture in syncopated cannon. Henley indicates a battle scene much in the tradition of ballet—with a great deal of gesturing and symbolic action, rather than with any actual physical conflict. This is also true in the following act, The Furies, with choreography by Susan Bienczycka. The action seems to be based on threat without any real consequences, and it is unclear who is fighting whom and why.
Kiplinn Sagmiller and Eric Esteb. Photo by John Cornicello
Khambatta takes a different approach in the two sections he has choreographed. In the first, Alkonost, Bird of Paradise, a sailor washed ashore is tortured by dark beings that flit in and out of the light. Combined with lighting effects, Khambatta appeals to the audience’s psychology, creating an atmosphere of empathetic fear for the sailor character. Khambatta also choreographed for a second myth, Benadanti, where he sources martial arts, acro-yoga, and ritualistic movement to effectively communicate a sacred order of the Bendadanti. The battle that follows with the Streghe is a unique approach to conflict, with aggressive contact improvisation-style duets. The only misstep here is the use of poorly executed unison. In-fact, directors and choreographers throughout the show seem to insist their performers use unison while in actions that are almost impossible to time. They would do better to use unison creatively, rather than setting up their performers for failure.
Between each section is another important component of the show, a theatrical scene starring Sarah Milici, who portrays a nerdy mythology grad student in her dorm room as she grapples with loneliness and a disproportionate passion about mythology. The audience is first introduced to her character as she leaves a hilarious and brilliantly acted phone message to her ex-lover, which brings us into her world immediately and works as a delightful and unexpected break from the seriousness and melodrama of the myths. Milici’s character is also used nicely to provide the audience with more information about the myths. Unfortunately as the show goes on, the monologue seems to take her out of her character, and she transitions from comic relief to an uncomfortable and distasteful representation of a suicidal person. She is also made to engage audience members in a tedious and poorly executed mythology quiz that is clearly just stretching out time for costume changes.
The grand finale is the final myth, Seven Macaw Cleanses the World. In this piece, directed and choreographed by Simons, the Cabiri aim to communicate an apocalyptic tale from the Mayans, which involves an ambitious beginning-of-the-world-into-the-future timeline. Dancers roll on the floor in a circle surrounding a duet on the trapeze, seemingly presenting some kind of pre-world that evolves into the performers donning masks and embodying animalistic physical tendencies (which are very fun to watch) and then eventually becoming humans, scientists, cellphone users, and suicidal terrorists. While Simons effectively demonstrated the progression of time, the piece was quite lengthy and could use some thoughtful editing. The attempt to make a large and complex statement about modern life felt a little forced. The piece seemed to end numerous times, and the ending chosen was not the strongest one. The Cabiri solemnly leaves the theater without bowing (Murphy later explains that it is because he doesn’t want to break the illusion) but the audience is unsure if this is the actual ending, and confused about how to show their support for the amazing stage talent and hard work of the performers. The applause is small for a performance of this magnitude, but only because it seems inappropriate to cheer for the end of the world.
The Cabiri has the aerial elements perfectly tuned—innovative use of each apparatus goes beyond simple tricks and poses. It is truly an opportunity to see an aerial performance of this quality and with such high production value. In such an intimate space, every seat is amazing as performers soar over the heads of the audience. It is, without doubt, highly entertaining. The circus clearly has a very different approach to performance than most contemporary dance—one that is still about the illusion—very presentational, theatrical, and melodramatic. With this grand drama also comes struggle with the difficult tedium of how to communicate a linear story and how to find finesse, nuance, and depth within the myth.
Beneath a Wing Darkened Sky continues this weekend, Thursday, October 25 through Sunday, October 28, at 7:30 pm each evening. Tickets and more information available through Brown Paper Tickets.