A stilt walker resplendent in a tuxedo and a juggler in a red corset appear like a mirage amongst the city grit of Harvard Avenue. The stilt walker (Leslie Rosen) waves a black and white gauze-tailed fan over the Erickson Theater door like the wisp of a dream welcoming the audience to Alana O. Rogers’ Reveries & Other Stories. These carnival characters foreshadow the themes of both works on the program It’s All a Circus and The Deep Dark. From the titles alone, I anticipate exploring the knife edge between things that delight and frighten us in fantasy and dreams.
When the lights come up on It’s All a Circus, vocalist Caela Bailey mesmerizes the audience singing the English version of Edith Piaf’s Je ne Regrette Rien in a rich glittering Moulin Rouge-style costume by Paris Original. Bailey’s subtle red-gloved gestures are a sultry invitation to join her in the fantastical world where the dancers are costumed as circus tropes. A tightrope walker (Karena Birk), jester (Paris Original), ringmaster (Jana Kincl) strong man (Rhea Keller), cheetah (Thomas Phelan) and harlequin (Alicia Pugh) come forward, some glancing nervously around as if wanting to play, but not knowing where to start. Notably, the ringmaster looks bored and hangs back. Nevertheless they pull each other into a whirl of a romp. The dancers’ expressions teeter between joy and sadness, their swooping and athletic movements periodically punctuated by flexed feet and quirky arm sequences. The choreography creates whirling beauty in chaos.
Rogers notes in the program that she first created the work last year as an antithesis to the doldrums of the pandemic. Yet there are moments when Circus reflects the isolation and loneliness we experienced during the global lockdown. The harlequin dances a solo in which she starts sitting slumped on a box dejectedly alone until she finds a hat that becomes a delightful companion breaking her boredom.
Comedic and whimsical interludes pepper the piece. A silver ball rolls back and forth between wings, enthralling with its magical appearing and disappearing. The cast forms into a car with spinning umbrellas for wheels that collapses as the group barely make it across the stage, generating pure glee for the audience. Another time, bouncing flashlights pierce a stage plunged in darkness and a loud clown car horn startles the unsuspecting audience into laughter.
Rogers has good dancers and knows how to use their skills to develop delightful characters. The strong man, Rhea Keller, is tiny in stature and masterfully embodies that irony. She grimaces as she struggles to lift comically lightweight items and then proudly walks off stage. The other performers easily pick her up and pass her around but she is unfazed, seemingly glad to be part of the fun. The effect of this wonderful ridiculousness is that it reminds us of the healing effects of not taking ourselves so seriously or worrying about others’ opinions. By the finale, the dancers move in synchronous joy, all traces of interpersonal awkwardness gone.
The fantastical dream world extends through intermission with a surprise performance by guest artist Audrey Greaves, a bounce juggler, who uses Lacrosse-like balls to create bouncing fountains off the floor. Greaves wowed the audience as she kicked, spun, and did the splits working effortlessly from three balls to seven.
The other work in the show, The Deep Dark, plunges the audience into a mysterious dreamscape. The piece opens with a spotlight on Nikki Cardona dressed in a black mesh tunic moving frantically as if struggling to get something, an inner demon, out of deep inside of her. The spot switches to the opposite side of the stage where Alicia Pugh is spinning and flowing in a delicate floral robe—the two dancers creating a yin and yang representative of the shadow and light in all of us.
The spot goes out and all six dancers (Rhea Keller, Tariq Mitri, Thomas Phelan, and Maya Tacon complete the cast) drop to the floor in murky darkness. When a low light leaks over the dancers on their backs, their hands move through prayer position, a gesture of emotional seeking that echoes throughout the piece. When they rise, the dancers’ eyes are vacant and their focus disconnected from each other, but they move physically as one. A group of four dancers, arms grasped, pull and twist each other slowly across the stage in some sort of hellish torment. But the larger group also embraces and transforms this turbulent, shadow energy. They form a stairway that Keller, costumed in a mustard tunic, ascends like a ray of light and falls into their arms creating a visual metaphor that we must lose our way to find our way.
The dancers begin to anchor each other. Duos walk holding hands. Individuals cross the stage, consumed in their own world until another arrests them with a compassionate embrace. The heart of this section depicting the struggle of acceptance is a duet with Cardona and Tacon to a cover of Lay All Your Love on Me. In the initial sequence Cardona circles her arms around Tacon, but Tacon slides through them to the floor which happens repeatedly. It is a heartbreaking portrayal of the painful work to reach out for support and to give your trust to someone and not have it returned.
The dancers continue the exhausting work of missed connections reflecting the refrain of the song, “Don’t go wasting your emotion.” It is so satisfying when the two finally share weight and move together, literally laying all their love on each other.
The evening is titled Reveries & Other Stories. Reverie is defined as delirium, being lost in thought and wandering. The Alana O. Rogers Company certainly inspires us to explore our own dreamscape, play and marvel at what connections that makes with our fellow humans.
Reveries and Other Stories took place September 29-October 1st at the Erickson Theater.