Communitas Comes to Town
Communitas is a Latin noun that describes an unstructured society where humans are equal. It also has a sociological connotation of a society that is greater than the sum of its parts. For the dance circus theater company Almanac, this word is a title that encompasses the idea behind artistic directors Ben Grinberg and Nick Gillette’s new acrobatic dance project, one that focuses on relationships in performance. As Ben states, “What can we do together that we can’t do apart?”
The togetherness of Ben and Nick’s work esthetic is evident not only in their performance, but also when they discuss their project. As they chatted with me over coffee, I was amazed by their ability to take such abstract concepts and make them concrete through actions. When Nick talks about their inspiration for Communitas, he mentions “stark simplicity onstage,” and how an artist can make a big statement through this simplicity. In particular, Nick mentions the Café Muller by Pina Bausch (see video here), where one repeated gesture stood in for a huge concept, such as love or death. By allowing physical actions to envelop these stronger concepts, the pair start to remove artifice in theater. As Nick describes it, “When you speak words on stage, they can either be true or false, but when you are doing a type of dance, I am either standing on Ben or not. It becomes a piece of balance, community, and trust. These are not things we play at, but must do.”
Ben adds that they want to distance this show from the typical American interpretation of circus arts. “Circus arts have been regarded as entertainment in the United States, but there is a huge amount of artistry that hasn’t been plumbed in traditional circus styles,” he says, and Communitas is definitely not your standard circus show. First, there are only four performers and a live musician, and the focus is on balance and human structures. The idea is to have “regard for each other,” or how humans encounter and learn about each other on stage through this hyper-physicalized, and at times dangerous, performance. Each move has significance, even the unintentional ones—for instance, how can a performer’s breathing affect another performer? Communitas becomes a deep exploration of who these four performers are, and how the four operate together. The viewer can clearly see the physical limitations of the performers, but this is exactly what Nick and Ben are looking to expose. They create their own sense of “communitas” as they work towards an on-stage community.
At a recent rehearsal, it made me incredibly anxious to watch the two performers work. They relied heavily on one another, and a mistake would not be remedied by a safety net or a spotter. At one point it was suggested that they try a “head spring,” which is exactly what it sounds like—a performer sits on the ground, and a second performer runs behind him and is flipped by dropping his head into the hands of the sitting performer. Their willingness to experiment with this new move was immediate, as was the spontaneous and explosive manner in which they moved. It took several tries, but eventually, the head spring began to appear very natural, an organic movement that connected both performers in an instant.
Nick says that part of the intent of Communitas is to read human themes and relations from the physicality. For instance, what does it mean to be standing on another person, or to be held or pushed away? What can someone read from the way a body is manipulated? Ben adds that it is important to consider how they can not be a person, but instead a material, element, or an animal. The performers’ physicality can make it immediately clear that they are not representing human characters, such as by using their bodies as sculptures, they can create larger, interpretive structures. You can get a sense of that from the promo video, which shows the work in various stages of progression.
This is not the first time the two artists have worked together. They met as classmates at the Pig Iron School of Advanced Performance Training, and their first work was The Chase, which was “effortless to make,” says Ben. They also have plans to continue creating in the future, with a few ideas in the works, but right now, the focus is on Communitas and the many directions it is taking them.
— Katie Whittaker
May 22, 23, 24 at 8pm
May 24 and 25 at 3pm
Christ Church Neighborhood House
20 North American Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19106
Tickets: $20 General Admission, $10 Student/Artist. Buy HERE!
Photos by Ian Douglas. Poster photo by Elyssa Goodman.