deFineArtsLA Exclusive: So You Think You Can Dance With Elephants?

When I heard about choreographer Lionel Popkin’s There’s an Elephant in This Dance happening at the REDCAT this past weekend, complete with interpretive dance and elephant costumes, my imagination went wild. Dancing elephants! Sign me up! Being the enthusiastic fan of the extravagantly bizarre that I am, I was of course expecting something outrageous—chorus lines of elephants adorned in gold and green, roller-skating through arbitrarily-floating sheer fabrics of rose and yellow, a bazaar-like carnival of gleaming lights and clamorous music and pinwheels and ice sculptures and bubbles, lots of bubbles!—but of course, as I should’ve learned by now, anything that I attend at the REDCAT is nothing like what I expect. Usually, it’s better.

The dance opened with a woman, Peggy Piacenza, on a dark, empty stage, matter-of-factly putting on the pieces of a chintzy, worn-out elephant suit. She jiggled the headpiece into place, and bing! Elephant! The now-elephant contemplated her newfound existence for a moment before beginning a series of delightful, childlike dances, at moments hesitant and at others exuberant, until collapsing exhausted on the floor.

I was quickly learning that the elephants in my own mind rest in a much different place than the ones in Popkin’s. Popkin, raised in a split Hindu/Jewish home, grew up surrounded by images of Ganesh, the Hindu deity esteemed as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings. Popkin used his own connection to the iconography of Ganesh to explore the themes of cultural identity and self-actualization in There’s an Elephant.

Following the opening, the dance centered on the character played by Lionel Popkin himself. The wistful, plucky music of composer Robert Een’s live score accompanied by a black-and-white video of the furry dancing elephant by Cari Ann Shim Sham and Kyle Ruddick served as a backdrop for Popkin’s more serious self-exploration. Hands in pockets, Popkin planted himself center-stage and looked around inquisitively. Slowly, he began to sway, his spine swiveling at his hips just like the trunk of a curious pachyderm, whipping and contorting with increasing ferocity. Popkin was soon joined by the dance’s other players, including long-time collaborator Carolyn Hall and modern dance veteran Ishmael Houston-Jones.

Hall and Popkin took the lead in a terrific duet, wherein Hall commanded Popkin about the stage with her index finger, leading him by the mouth like a mule to a carrot. The innocent buoyancy of the dance dissolved quickly as the power struggle between the two dancers grew. Caught between resistance and longing, both dancers struggled to assert their individuality while simultaneously remaining clearly co-dependent. A beautiful play of domination, desire, and will emerged as Popkin’s character scuffled with the ever-more-clingy Hall. Finally, in a brilliant reversal of roles, it was no longer Hall’s character who led Popkin’s on her finger, but he who carried her, limp with exhaustion, into darkness.

What was so great about this dance was its capacity to mimic human capriciousness—at one moment somber and pensive, the dancers entwined in this petulant power-struggle, and at another playful and blithe. Being prone to emotional volatility myself (only sometimes, y’all) I found myself laughing out loud and then immediately sinking back with the dancers into their pining.

In the concluding act, Popkin’s character reached the final stage in his quest for self-actualization. Alone again, he encountered the elephant suit, which had maintained an eerie side-stage presence for much of the dance (aside from a charming interlude in which Piacenza romped excitedly around stage while attempting to put the thing on). Watching Popkin explore the dimensions of the suit, dressing and disrobing, at times rolling on the floor trailing the head by its trunk, gave strange feelings of awe and unease. With the last moments of the dance Popkin seemed to find peace, but only after many fits full of grace and existential yearning (I said it! Existential yearning!).

I was left not only wanting to sign up for an agro-yoga class, but feeling almost like I’d already taken one myself. That feeling you get after a not-to-strenuous bike ride on a sunny day. So what if I saw “dance” and “elephant” and I didn’t read any further—I’m glad I didn’t. There’s an Elephant in This Dance was the most pleasant surprise a trunk-lovin’ girl could’ve asked for.

For more information on REDCAT and their upcoming events, please call 213-237-2800, or visit www.redcat.org.

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