An Ancient Legend Goes Aloft
It’s not as if dancer-choreographer Josie Walsh is reinventing the wheel with her upcoming multidisciplinary production, “Avalon,” but she is trying to put an indelible spin on the legend of King Arthur. Indeed, in the Walsh work, which opens Wednesday at Hollywood’s Doolittle Theatre, ballet blends with hip-hop, aerialists soar over martial artists and actors, and a long-haired singer belts out apocalyptic, industrial rock while parading around the stage on stilts.
If it all sounds a bit Cirque du Soleil-ish, according to 30-year-old Walsh, who has danced with, among others, Joffrey Ballet and Zurich Ballet, think again. During a break in rehearsal--a steamy pas de deux--Walsh explains: “They’re circus-based with some dance, we’re just the opposite. We’re dance-based and we use circus arts to enhance choreographic opportunities--a way to successfully defy gravity. Cirque creates an experience more than a story. I’m trying to do both--where you walk into a world and there’s a story within that.”
Walsh’s universe, populated by a cast of 23, is one in which Christians and pagans duke it out. There are the usual characters of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, along with birds, spiders, fauns and alluring sirens, to name but a few of the creations inhabiting “Avalon.” Abetting Walsh are her 2-year-old dance company, Myo; Ingrid Hoffman, artistic director of Belisama Aerial Dance Project; theatrical director-puppeteer Jamie Alexis (who also wrote the actors’ dialogue and helped design the costumes); and the rock band Surve, fronted by Walsh’s husband, Paul Rivera.
Although “Avalon” unfolds in a linear fashion with a narrative, it is far from traditional. The actors are mainly used to introduce more than 10 dance numbers created by Walsh. The dance, she says, is the energy behind what the actors say.
“The whole point is to keep the show seamless,” says Walsh, who began choreographing five years ago at Zurich Ballet and who currently teaches 10 classes a week as well as choreographs and dances for television sitcoms and fashion shows. “I didn’t want just a series of unconnected dance pieces. The actors weave the story, and the dance is another expression of what they said. We also make the audience part of the story.”
During scene changes and intermissions, for example, Merlin and other characters carry on a dialogue with patrons in their seats and in the lobby. “It’s almost like stepping into a different dimension,” Walsh says.
“Avalon” has plenty of theatrical models beyond nouveau cirque. Peter Brook’s 1973 Ahmanson staging of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had Oberon and Puck swinging from trapezes, while the Flying Karamazov Brothers, in their 1984 performance of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” at the Mark Taper Forum, made use of gymnastics and juggling, among other sideshow skills.
Walsh, however, came by her notion to combine circus arts with dance a bit by happenstance. She met Hoffman, a trapeze artist, when Hoffman signed up for one of her ballet classes in 1999. That connection led to Hoffman’s troupe of aerialists and Walsh’s Myo company presenting “CarniVinyl,” a series of performances at the El Rey Theatre in spring 2001.
From there, Hoffman began training the Myo dancers in trapeze work. Serendipitously, Hoffman and Walsh were both obsessed with the Arthurian legend, and after three months of working together, the result was “Avalon.” The show debuted last November at the 300-seat Ivar Theatre in Hollywood, and has since been expanded for the 1,100-seat Doolittle house with a larger cast and several revamped numbers.
Writing about the original production, Times dance critic Lewis Segal said the show resembled a Las Vegas production in miniature, with “big ambitions and plenty of talent to realize them.”
Myo member Aaron Hendry, who trained in track and field and has been a street performer in Europe, also danced with Jacques Heim’s acrobatic Diavolo Dance Theatre in L.A. for a year.
In “Avalon,” Hendry assumes several roles, mostly for comic relief, including a sword-fighting King Stag and a Pan-like faun who gambols in the audience. In addition, he does trapeze work, courtesy of Hoffman’s instruction.
“For me, physical theater and spectacle theater is a new way of telling a story,” Hendry says. “When you go to see a play, that’s words. You know words, and words don’t surprise you. When you go see a play that is told with a language you don’t know, like ‘Avalon,’ it makes you think that things are possible that you didn’t previously believe to be possible.”
Kate Ferris, 21, the youngest Myo member, studied ballet and jazz in Phoenix before moving to L.A. in 1999. She too enrolled in Walsh’s ballet classes, where students execute fouettes to music by the folk-pop duo Dead Can Dance more often than to Chopin. Ferris was one of the dancers who learned her aerial moves from Hoffman. She works with lengths of fabric “rope” instead of a trapeze.
“At first it was a little scary, climbing up these pieces of fabric,” she says, “but in a sense it’s dancing, only you’re using a tool besides your body. You’re defying gravity, but in a way you do that when you have to leap and jump in the air as a dancer. You have to learn how to be sustained in the air, know where your body weight is, how to tie yourself up and do certain tricks.”
Hoffman, who recently suffered a shoulder injury (and last performed solo in May at the American Stunt Awards in Santa Monica), will dance in “Avalon,” but is laying off the trapeze for this show. The star flier, instead, is Ginger Griep-Ruiz, a Cirque du Soleil aerialist, along with nine of Myo’s 12 members.
Says Hoffman: “I’ve worked with circus performers before, and when you work with circus performers, even though you’re getting more tricks and skills, the dancers are far more expressive with their bodies.”
As for the logistics of putting actors, aerialists and dancers on stage together, Walsh acknowledges that it’s been tough. Her shoestring budget has meant limited rehearsal time for the entire cast at the Doolittle. “We know what we’re doing with the show now,” she says, “and the separate rehearsals are for perfecting the different arts and disciplines--the weaving and the interludes.
“It’s a kamikaze jump to the Doolittle,” she adds.
Walsh hopes this leap leads to another. She has recently incorporated Myo and has another multidisciplinary production in mind: “Gone With the Whim,” her take on Scarlett O’Hara and company.
“I want to keep doing this,” she says. “My shows are meant to be entertaining, to reach a non-dance as well as a dance crowd. I don’t want to copy somebody else. My work just comes through, and I’m just being true to that.
“It’s very unconventional,” Walsh adds with a laugh, “that’s for sure.”
“AVALON,” Doolittle Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood. Dates: Wednesday-
Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 7 p.m.
Prices: $30-$60. Phone: (323) 655-8587.
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