Communitas Organizer: Interview with Ben Grinberg about his dance circus theater

almanac-dance-circus-theatreI first encountered Ben Grinberg as in Pig Iron’s Pay Up and as Anders in Hella Fresh Theater’s Hannah. Neither was a movement-based piece, but Grinberg’s physical awareness was remarkable even in this context. It was unsurprising then, to see him in a hilariously inventive clown-type piece “The Chase”, as part of SmokeyScout Productions’ Nice and Fresh series. Together with collaborator Nick Gillette, Ben has founded Almanac Dance Circus Theatre to offer production of his unique brand of acrobatic theater. Almanac’s inaugural show, Communitas, launches this month (May 22-24) at Christ Church Neighborhood House, with a preview outside 30th Street Station on May 9. Phindie asked Ben a few questions about the show and his new company.

Phindie: How did you meet Nick Gillette?
Ben Grinberg: We met as classmates in the inaugural class of the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training [APT]. At the Pig Iron School, you make a piece every week with six and a half hours of “creation” time. The last week of the first trimester, we made a piece together based on the prompt “The Chase.” We finished early and took a free period on Thursday. We’ve performed that piece over 15 times all over Philly and in New York and people still ask us to do it. Working on that piece was easy. Now sometimes it’s hard, but mostly it’s still light and easy.

Phindie: Tell me a little about Communitas. How did it come about?

Ben Grinberg rehearsing COMMUNITAS at Penn Treaty Park. Photo credit Justin Rose

Ben Grinberg rehearsing COMMUNITAS at Penn Treaty Park. Photo credit Justin Rose

BG: About a year and a half ago Nick were in the winter of our second year of the Pig Iron APT, and the school had lit a fire in all of us to go out and make work and show it to the world. FringeArt’s “Jumpstart” program announced it would be having auditions for short, new works that spring, and many of us put our names in a hat for an audition slot, figuring if we were selected, six weeks was plenty of time to throw something together. We were in the middle of taking an elective dance class from Nicole Canuso, and Nick and I had been going to handstand training and Chinese acrobatics classes at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts [PSCA], so I remember thinking that if I was selected, I would ask him if he wanted to make some kind of acrobatic dance duet. My name wasn’t pulled but his was, and he came up to me right after the drawing and asked me if I wanted to work on an acrobatic dance duet. Sometimes we think the same thoughts.

It turns out that six weeks isn’t quite enough time to make an acrobatic dance while you’re in school and working full time, and we didn’t get selected for Jumpstart. But we felt we were on to something and kept working on it. After a conversation with Annie Wilson I ended up somewhat petulantly producing an evening of short pieces called “Jumpstart Rejects” at Mascher Space Co-Op to give all the things that were made for the Jumpstart auditions a chance to see the light of day. We performed the piece there and a few other places, but put it on hold to finish our final projects for school and work on Pig Iron’s Pay Up development. On the suggestion of my roommate, a whim, and at the absolute last minute, I filled out an entry for a drawing for an audition slot for the Fresh Tracks Program at New York Live Arts, and unbeknownst to him, included Adam Kerbel on the sheet as our musician. As luck would have it we got a slot despite it being crazy competitive, and the three of us started rehearsing again on the cheap, outside in Penn Treaty Park in the late summer and all of those crazy hot days last October. This is when the piece really started to find itself, I think. Our audition went really well and was a great experience, but we were still shocked when we were actually chosen for Fresh Tracks.

Phindie: What is Fresh Tracks?
BG: Fresh tracks is the signature program of New York Live Arts (formerly Dance Theatre Workshop)— an audition-based showcase and residency for emerging choreographers..

Phindie: Almanac is described as “dance circus theater”. What do those terms mean to you?
BG: Dance circus theater means we can take the best parts of those three genres to make whatever we want. It’s theater because we’re telling a story or showing you an image you can recognize in your own life; it’s dance because it’s about the body and rhythm and music; it’s circus because it’s dangerous — the movements aren’t just beautiful or graceful but visibly difficult to achieve with a real risk of failure. We think there are a ton of unexplored ways this danger can be used in service of storytelling, and can help us achieve the “presence” actors and dancers are so often searching for.

Phindie: How much of the piece is Dance… Circus… Theater?
BG: This isn’t a show where we’re going to have a monologue or a clown routine and then go do some tricks in the air followed by a kick line (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that kind of show). We’re taking from each of these three modes to make a completely new language of performance. So the piece is at every moment dance and circus and theater.

Phindie: How did you get into circus performance?
BG: While I’m definitely into contemporary circus as an artist and a director (I directed the last full-length staff circus at the PSCA), I don’t really think of myself as a circus performer. If I had to perform in a circus-circus right now, I’d still definitely be a clown and not an acrobat. That being said I’ve always loved to be upside down and I’ve been taking acrobatics through the Pig Iron School or at PSCA for the better part of the last three years.

Phindie: Are there any misconceptions about circus performance which you’d like to clear up?
BG: I heard this story recently: a friend of a friend was complaining that even though she had spent so much money on tickets for her family to go see Cirque du Soliel’s Totem, the performers were messing up and making mistakes! “What am I paying for, to watch you drop balls?”

Ben Grinberg (left) and Nick Gillette in a Fresh Tracks performance at New York Live Arts. Photo credit Ian Douglas.

Ben Grinberg (left) and Nick Gillette in a Fresh Tracks performance at New York Live Arts. Photo credit Ian Douglas.

There’s definitely a tipping point when it comes to virtuosity in circus. There’s a natural wonder and amazement we all feel when we see an acrobat do something we didn’t think they could do, that she didn’t think she could do, something that seems to defy the laws of physics — the dangerous rapture that is seeing another person approaching a physical limit, risking something, striving, daring to push beyond what is safe to come out the other side on a new frontier. That is what is beautiful about acrobatics. But when the performer is so talented, and makes the tricks look so effortless, the audience stops seeing the performer as a human being and starts see them as machine, counting the flips and twists and turns. Putting people in crazy animal-alien make-up on a gigantic arena stage hundreds of feet from the front row doesn’t help things on the humanity front, either — of course the audiences get angry, then, when a performer misses a trick! The thing to remember is that the mistake should feel like the juiciest bit, the moment when the whole audience is on your side, willing for you to try it again, and this time, get it. That’s the true power of circus, to unite people in the present moment.

Communitas cuts hard against this Cirque du Soleil-esque polish. Like, really, really hard. We look more or less like ordinary people because we are more or less ordinary people, but by being open and present, honest about the work we are doing, we hope that even the simplest trick can feel dangerous and exciting.

I’m not saying Cirque du Soleil is bad — of course it’s absolutely incredible and features some of the most talented performers in the world. I just think the last way I would want my audiences to feel after seeing my show is ripped off.

Phindie: What do you like about your partnership with Nick? What different things do the two of you bring to the collaboration?
BG: Nick and I go at about the same speed, which is much faster than most everyone else — not that this is always a good thing. We plunge head-first into whatever it is and stop to think about it much later — if at all. We feel a deep spiritual need to make art. We respect ancient traditions and bemoan the state of contemporary culture like a couple of troglodytes bonking each other over the head with clubs (stay tuned for our next piece, “Troglodytes Bonking Each Other Over the Head with Clubs”). We think the systematic racism of the justice system is incredibly fucked-up. We believe in Platonic ideals of beauty. We frequently admit to each other we have no idea what we’re doing, but we’ve gotten pretty good at faking it. We agree to spend an hour of rehearsal one way and accidentally spend two hours on something significantly more fun and never think of this as wasting time. We trust each other. I trust Nick more than I trust myself. Usually.

Ben and Nick just, you know, hanging with their friend Claire Danes. Photo credit: Hugh Dancy.

Ben and Nick just, you know, hanging with their friend Claire Danes. Photo credit: Hugh Dancy.

Nick is this incredibly talented physical performer. He jumps like a gazelle, is the best mime I’ve ever met, and is a hysterical improviser. What do I bring to the table? I’m naturally awkward in an endearing way, have a bendy back, and like to solve problems.

We have this agreement about how we decide what to make— if we both like something, we stop working on it and it goes in the piece. If we both say no, then it’s out. When one of us says yes and the other says no — that’s the stuff we work on.

We have a bit of a clown routine going on when we talk about our work. Nick sells us hard — says we’re making brilliant work that’s never before been seen on earth. I back-pedal and say we like to stay open to new ideas and are very grateful to have the chance to learn from others and hope we haven’t wasted people’s time. Nick teaches me not to apologize; I remind him about understatement.

Phindie: Tell me a little about the other performers in Communitas.
BG: Adam Kerbel is just this completely unique dude. He’s one of the best movers in the city and is at every single moment completely himself. He’s a great addition to Communitas because he’s small enough for us to throw around but strong enough to pick us up. Before he started working on the project I don’t think he had any circus training, and you should see some of the stuff he does now.

Lauren Harries is another classmate from Pig Iron APT. Lauren was a little under-the-radar at APT until in the last semester her clown performances repeatedly put all of the rest of us to shame. We’ve come to expect her to do the most incredible thing when we least expect it. She keeps us honest, slows us down when we need to be tamed, and pays attention to the details.

Rob Emanuele is our musician for this project. He’s smart, earnest, dedicated, and an incredible guitar player (he also plays flute, harmonica, bass, egg shaker in our piece). He’s the kind of guy that buys an antique contra-guitar on eBay and can play it perfectly a few hours after it arrives from Venice.

Phindie: I’ve heard great things about Pig Iron APT. What do you think you brought away from your time there?
BG: My time at APT was soul-forging. I learned what it means to be present and how hard it is to recreate something a second time. I learned how to see time and space. I learned to appreciate what theater can do — which is anything, but not everything. I realized why I need to be an artist. Most of all I met a family of collaborators and found my artistic home.

Phindie: Do you foresee more shows from Almanac?
BG: Yes, absolutely. Almanac is meant to be an artistic home for both Nick and I. We haven’t announced our next project yet but there are a few things coming down the pike — we’ll go on a brief hiatus as Nick adjusts to fatherhood (his wife’s due date is May 29, four days after our show closes…) and I head to Maine to be a young artist resident at Bearnstow over the summer, but will start making work again in the fall.

Phindie: Are there any other Philly shows you’re looking forward to?
BG: Yes! Of course I’m really looking forward to the Remix Festival this weekend, and Midway Avenue. BRAT’s The Future is going to be insane in the best way, and I’m really hoping I’ll get another chance to see both Underground Railroad Game and Restless Natives, both of which I missed earlier this week.

Phindie: Communitas sounds awesome. How can I get tickets?
BG: Tickets are on sale now at http://communitas.brownpapertickets.com!

COMMUNITAS. [Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N American Street] May 22-24, 2014, thealmanac.us. (Preview at The Porch at 30th Street Station, May 9, 2014)

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.