The Cabiri are back, with their signature combination of circus skills and cultural anthropology. Their most recent production, Carpathian Dawn (December 4-7, 2014), was a mix of foundation stories and village tales that hovered between mythology and history, set in what is now eastern Europe. The gods mixed it up and humans got in the way—the result was a series of vignettes combining aerial choreography and terrestrial dancing featuring the members of the Cabiri and the Radost Folk Ensemble.
Watching Carpathian Dawn was a reminder of how the same themes appear in many different folktales. Whether it’s Anansi or Loki or Hermes, most cultures have a trickster god, while we find the same chief creator role in Wotan and Zeus as well as Svarožič, who started the whole process here when he made humans from clay, and taught them to revere the gods. As usual, chaos ensued, and we followed along with their various encounters until the end, where drought was assuaged, children were lost and found, and sailors missing at sea were returned to their families.
This collaboration between the Cabiri and Radost highlights the differences between the two groups and their distinctive styles. Radost, which has been performing the music and dance of eastern Europe since the 1970s, specializes in theatrical recreations of authentic materials. Like the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico or the Soviet Russian Moiseyev Dance Company, they take heritage art, usually performed in a village setting for and with the members of that community, and transfer it to a stage environment. In essence, they take a circle of performers, singing and dancing for each other, and open them out into a line, showing their work to us.
The Cabiri, on the other hand, are theater born and bred. Although the stories are drawn from authentic cultural history, the movement is not a product of dance ethnography so much as it seems to come from contemporary circus and modern dance practice. In the past, that combination of cross-cultural references and invented movement was a feature of companies like Denishawn, which also created work that told stories of ancient gods and other cultures. Today, a close analog would be Cirque du Soleil, with their powerful melding of high-end gymnastic skills and elaborately fanciful narrative.
In Carpathian Dawn, the performers from Radost were most at home on the earth, where their percussive, grounded step patterns could sound against the floor, making their tricky rhythms clear. In contrast, the cast members of the Cabiri spent the majority of their time in the air, on silks, stilts, or trapezes. This played out extremely clearly with the narrative aspects of the work, (the gods lived in the air and the humans lived on the ground), but it also meant that the two groups dealt with different approaches to movement. The Cabiri often found themselves in the same situation as a child on a swing who has to pump their legs to get momentum to move—the moment they stop generating that force, they’re at the mercy of entropy. But while they’re hanging from the ceiling, they can take full advantage of rotation, turning easily, so that a relatively simple action becomes a beautifully complex set of interrelated curves as it spins. Like a statue on a lazy susan, we can see them from all sides. The vigorous material that Radost performs is certainly full of jumping and traveling movement, but they don’t have the amplitude of a dancer on stilts or a bungee cord—their human-scale actions appear smaller in comparison.
This contrast supports the stories that John Murphy, Artistic Director of the Cabiri, wants to tell us. His fascination with early cultures and the mythologies that form the basis of human history has fueled the ensemble through a number of works as they continue to hone their skills in a challenging genre. This kind of high-stakes physical storytelling can be incredibly persuasive—the Cabiri are getting closer to their goals with every production. Carpathian Dawn has many truly affective moments where that synthesis takes hold—an aerial trio with Chloe Goolsby, Charly McCreary, and Lena Wolfe as powerful bird women is just one example of how theatrical tricks can illuminate ancient tales, but probably the most significant moment of the evening belonged to Nadia Tarnawsky. As the narrator, she was a presence on stage throughout the work, but at one point she stepped out to sing and the rest of the show fell quiet—she has what the Spanish call duende, or soul, and despite the fact that very few people in the house understood the words she sang, we shivered as her deep voice filled the room.