When Lionel Popkin’s There Is an Elephant in This Dance begins, an elephant suit lies scattered across the stage space, and the headpiece sits in an upstage corner, trunk askew, looking at us askance from under drooping lids. Popkin, son of a Jewish father and South Asian mother, grew up surrounded by images of Ganesh – the Hindu god revered as Remover of Obstacles and depicted with an elephant’s head – and in this work Popkin invokes the elephant and its attendant meanings to explore cultural identity. With appearances of the fuzzy gray suit in part or in whole, on performers and on screen, the choreographer builds unexpected physical relationships between and within bodies to raise questions about where our identities come from and where they reside. Popkin’s work gets its LA premiere at REDCAT May 20-23.
All members of the ensemble – a trio of musicians led by composer Robert Een and a quartet of movers – are deeply embedded in the work, but together the seven craft and unpack the portrait of only a single person. Popkin’s dancing collaborators intrigue but do not invite us to know them, and their wanderings into and out of the stage space and Popkin’s solos suggest that they’re here to reveal something about him.
Almost always at least part-pachyderm, Peggy Piacenza shuffles in the shadows behind Popkin, echoes his movements, and drifts offstage again – a specter of Valecia Philips’ surging, fading, otherworldly vocals within Een’s gorgeous score. She’s a comforting childhood memory with a plush elephant’s round tummy and saggy bum. With circling wrists and serpentine arms that sometimes look like Bharatanatyam, she dances calmly for us, occasionally stilling her inappropriately swinging trunk with one soft elephant foot.
We see Ishmael Houston-Jones in off-balanced struggle and earnest effort, but exaggerated facial expression and stiff formality keep him at a distance. With sudden, jerky shifts to maintain weight over his left foot, he circles and waves his right limbs in a strangely one-sided dance, juggling these competing physical identities until the right-sided undulations knock him into a high-stepping stumble to the left. But later on, a small triumph. His stomping and beckoning seems a weak approximation of an Indian classical dance until speed and intensity build to a focused frenzy, and his commitment makes us believe this dance – whatever it might be – is his.
Unlike his mysterious companions, Popkin meets us face-to-face in a downstage pool of light, and we get to know him as he breathes. First he blows gently, playfully, at us. Then internal gusts of air sweep him into deep backbends, and swirling currents course wildly through his body, forcing him to gulp and rebound, or choke and sputter. Sometimes his torso works like a bellows directing the flow, and sometimes he is a vessel filled and carried by this inner stream. And somewhere in the midst of the turmoil, I realize that his physical situation suggests tension and blurred boundaries between individual choice and environmental determination.
Moments of clarity like this one reveal the choreographer’s ability to speak powerfully through the body’s physical language. In Popkin’s duets with the long-limbed Carolyn Hall, his identity merges with and disappears into hers when he allows Hall to place one finger inside his mouth and direct their united action. Individual freedom is the obstacle to harmony here, and we feel his loss just as we enjoy the strange beauty of their single diving, falling, four-armed form – one that recalls images of Ganesh with so many arms.
In duets between Popkin and the on-screen elephant, the animal gains dignity with the mediated distance, and in its cheerful dances and thoughtful stillnesses, seems to watch over and encourage his partner. Facing away from the screen, Popkin sometimes joins his guardian in a simple sway, or swings a leg loosely like a trunk, and we feel the unconscious connection between them. And when Popkin, stripped to briefs so we can appreciate his very human legs, puts the headpiece on backwards, his strange form seems to hold the full possibilities of two identities simultaneously.
Lionel Popkin’s There Is an Elephant in This Dance continues at REDCAT at 8:30 p.m. on May 22 and at 3 p.m. on May 23. Tickets are $20 ($16 for students with current I.D.) and are available at www.redcat.org or by calling (213) 237-2800.