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Flash Review Journal, 5-22: More than Dancing Feet
From Ancient Deities to Urban Super Heroes on 42nd Street

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2001 Maura Nguyen Donohue

There are several different New 42nd Streets these days, and I glimpsed a couple at work this weekend. One is full of ancient deities and the other full of modern day super heroes. Epiphany Theater Company's "Spun: An Ancient Urban Myth" at the New 42nd St. Theater (a bit beyond the Disney World block) was strong on storytelling. NYC-based aerial dance company Antigravity's first evening-length theatrical production, "Crash Test Dummies," at the New Victory Theater (front stage and center in fantasyland) was a full-on spectacle. Now, if these neighbors were ever to meet and bring strong narrative together with stunning spectacle I would never refer to Times Square as "Hell-on-Earth" again.

"Spun," written, directed and choreographed by Zach Morris, mixes various mythologies from Ancient Greece to Africa into a contemporary theatrical journey. Morris's production is a great example of the continuing importance that ancient stories still play in the modern world. Mythologies all over the world have inspired some of the finest productions of poetry and art, both ancient and modern. They appeal to a wide range of audiences because they can provide audiences with some of the grandest fictions ever created.

As Storyteller/Griot, a charming Leslie Jones narrates the tale of Ananse, a mixture of the youngest of the Three Fates who weave the fabric of mortal lives and Ananci, the trickster spider of many West African legends. Here Ananse, in a vibrant though often overplayed for the space performance by Suzanne Cerreta, is an impetuous troublemaker who tricks Death in order to save the soul of her beloved Mason, played by Jared Gradinger. Tori Sparks's Lady Mors (Death) is as smooth as cool, silken sheets. She oozes the kind of seductive comfort that sleep offers as you freeze to death. Robert L. Taylor, ensemble player, offers refreshing levity throughout the show.

The production included a great score by MMMedium, and the presence of a live DJ during parts of the show created some feeling of an urban underground party. Unfortunately, Cerreta's dancing often looked like it would be better suited to Broadway Dance Center than a rave. The group dances worked well. In particular, a constantly shifting trio, in a pretty tight space, was athletic and exciting. In fact, I found my attention was usually drawn to the action happening behind a scene. The incidental background choreography was often more engaging than what the main characters were doing. Of course, in such an intimate space it was difficult to get a sense of spatial patterning and distance. The New 42nd St. Theater has a great feel to it but Morris's vision could use more room.

On the flipside (literally), the New Victory Theater offered Antigravity plenty of space, and I'd be hard pressed to find a part of it they didn't use. Who knew that New York City had its own resident aerial dance company? (Other than Steve Forbes, Bill Gates, Exit nightclub partiers and Broadway producers, that is.) Though the company's been around since 1990, it's played mostly commercial venues, making a pretty good living in Business Theater, industrials, nightclubs and parts of productions at the Metropolitan Opera House and in Broadway's "Swing." Its midtown 'compound' consists of the new Sky Loft studios and Antigravity Suites, temporary housing for the company's artists. The company roster is full of international Olympic- and World Champion level athletes and dancers. Christopher Harrison, creator/director/choreographer, has answered a recurring complaint of mine stemming from every summer Olympics I've obsessed over: Why doesn't someone take all that raw talent away from the competitive format and bring it to the theater? Harrison finally has, and to good effect.

"Crash Test Dummies" is a stunt-person's dream, full of falls, flips and sound effects (compliments of the witty Sxip Shirey and Paul Weir). This Extreme circus worked to capture the Sunday noon audience perfectly. This is the kind of magic kids should grow up seeing and believing in. The "Antigravity Boot" dance, a meeting of stilt and trampoline, brought gasps from behind me of, "It's like Star Wars." Exactly, except better. This fantasy isn't enhanced by Dreamworks studios -- these seemingly otherworld creatures are real live humans. When Andreis Freimanis, a second generation company member who currently attends kindergarten, is sent flying into the house with the aid of bungie cords, I can practically smell the collective desire in several little hearts to run-away, join la Cirque and learn how to fly.

But don't assume this show is just for kids; there's plenty of borderline humor for the adults. The artistry of performers such as Stephan Choiniere, whether he's glued to Aaron Vexler or spinning through the air with Kamila Zapytowska, is highly evident. Though mostly madcap, "Crash Test Dummies" does provide moments of grace. Mam Smith, Tatyana Petruk and the Chinese-contortionist-girl-trapped-in-a-full-grown-man's-body Jonathan Nosan lead a breathtaking aerial fabric ballet. Jonah Logan, as the Janitor, and Amy Gordon, as the Misfit, are our sweetly endearing heroes, though their kiss did cause a collective "EEEEWW" from the audience.

I'm thrilled to see the evolution of circus in this country, and though San Francisco apparently is still the only place in the U.S. with a New Circus school, it's heartening to know that New York City offers many different levels of entertainment coming from the tradition. From Sarah East Johnson's downtown-styled LAVA, to the party atmosphere of De La Guarda (the best theater I've ever experienced), to Antigravity's antics there's bound to be something for everyone.

The bad news is that no one's teaching here. So anyone that wants to learn how to fly should check out www.frequentflyers.org. Frequent Flyers is a Boulder, CO based troupe hosting the 2001 Aerial Dance Festival at the end of July.

The good news is that if you're looking for inspiration, you don't have to trek to Jersey and dish out $80 to see Cirque du Soleil rehash its formula. With Antigravity at the New Victory for two more weeks, Thursdays through Sundays, with tickets priced at $10, $20 and $25 you can still get your thrills in Manhattan without having to forfeit eating for a week. "Spun" continues at the New 42nd Street Theater Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.

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