COMMUNITAS (Almanac): The Contortionist and the Dancer

Photo credit Kate Raines.

Photo credit Kate Raines.

Almanac Dance Circus Theatre is Ben Grinberg and Nick Gillette. Their first full-length piece, COMMUNITAS, currently running at Christ Church Neighborhood House, is a high-energy romp, it’s an expedition into the concepts of unity and division, it’s a mythical wonder-machine smattered with 90’s kung-fu goofiness and performed to live music.

The action in COMMUNITAS could be best described as four people taking turns carrying one another around a space, then falling off, then swapping who carries whom. In a way, it is structured around a continual exploration of ways to make two or more people into one. Balance is challenged not by standing on a tight rope, but by joining two bodies at a single point and leaning precipitously apart; disassemble and repeat as necessary.

Grinberg and Gillette bring effusive, athletic energy to their acrobatics-based expositions, and guest artists Lauren Harries and Adam Kerbel, who join Almanac to make COMMUNITAS a four-piece, are more than adequate additions to this equation.

Dance Circus Theatre is a perfect description for the unique approach that Almanac bring to performance. Circus is certainly a part of it, as there are more than enough tumbles, leaps, rolls and other “wow”-able feats.

Almanac eschews props and uses fast-paced high-octane athletics to explore new physical configurations that leave behind the cliches of “circus.” And while it is the kind of show that elicits periodic applause and whooping from the audience at each new feat, the performers present their tricks with enough humility, theatricality, and inventiveness that you forget you’re actively being impressed.

What’s more, Almanac has hit on the especially fun trick of showing the effort. Spending very little energy on grace, they tackle each new feat with the energy and force of a footballer, grunting, sweating, huffing and puffing, and at times even seeming to stumble, so that “danger” remains a part of the experience, and the audience gets to be in on each experiment.

At one point, Grinberg’s feet are hooked around Gillette’s thighs, and, their hands interlocked, Gillette walks in circles. At another point, Gillette and Grinberg are blindfolded and dancing with Kerbel and Harries standing on their shoulders. Then they reconfigure, and each new combination of bodies is at least as unbelievable, impossible-looking, and satisfying as the one before. In this way, COMMUNITAS becomes a showcase of bodily inventions.

The venue isn’t perfect for this type of piece. With the limited amount of lift in Christ Church’s risers, a performance needs either to stay on its feet or maintain distance from the front row. But a considerable amount of action occurs downstage and on the ground, and anyone behind row three is either craning her neck or imagining what might be that happening down there.

Rob Emanuele’s live guitar becomes as much one of the dancers as it is an accompaniment. It is at times frantic, at times languorous. He creates a soundtrack as twangy as it is soulful, keying in on Almanac’s semi-serious, ultra-manic aesthetic. [Christ Church Neighborhood House] May 22-25, 2014; thealmanac.us.

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About the author

Julius Ferraro

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, playwright, performer, and project manager in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This and editor-in-chief of thINKingDANCE. His recent plays include Parrot Talk, Micromania, and The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster.