DC Metro Arts

“A Door in the Desert Review”

By Celeste Mann

May 6, 2017

I held my breath in glorious anticipation at several instances during Almanac Dance Circus Theatre’s captivating show Fronteras: A Door in the Desert. A Door in the Desert is the second part of Fronteras. (The other part, An Homage to Whatshername, was performed on May 3, also at FringeArts.) At FringeArts on May 5, for one performance only, Almanac presented their unique and exciting mix of acrobatics, dance and theatre in an exploration of different types of boundaries.

The ensemble. Photo courtesy FringeArts.

“Fronteras” is Spanish for “borders” or “frontiers.” These days we hear a lot about the U.S.-Mexican border, which has been a running theme in our current political climate. In A Door in the Desert this issue is also salient, represented by two performers — one who is a Mexican traveler carrying some kind of baggage, and the other wearing a donkey head.

Almanac is a young company, founded in 2013 in Philadelphia by Ben Grinberg, Adam Kerbel and Nick Gillette. The skilled and formidable ensemble for this piece includes Emmanuel Becerra (who is from Mexico and a resident artist with Almanac for the last four months), Evelyn Langley, Joseph Ahmed, Ben Grinberg, Nicole Burgio and Lauren Johns. Robin Stamey contributes as designer (along with Becerra) and Gillette serves as “Outside Eye.”

Recorded music and live dialogue are in both English and Spanish, which complement the border theme. “Disonancia” by Mexican band Ampersan opened the show, and their “Noche de fuego” accompanies a later scene. Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” is also featured, among other musical selections.

The ensemble. Photo courtesy FringeArts.

In addition to expertly executed daredevil acrobatics — handstands, flips, rolls, cartwheels, jumps and other tricks — there is provocative symbolism in A Door in the Desert. For example, some of the performers construct doors with their bodies stacked atop each other throughout the piece, which others then walk through, into another culture, “world” or context. In the first scene, there is also a key to the door that separates the U.S. from Mexico. Emmanuel and the donkey, Timoteo, are trying to cross in order to get to Arizona, but the American guarding it doesn’t have the key. Emmanuel produces it and explains that Mexico has had it since 1859, and that he is giving it to the guard who can now keep it and use it to open the door and let people pass. (Historically, 1859 was during the Benitez Juarez government in Mexico. At that time the U.S. offered diplomatic support to Mexico. The Mexican government also negotiated a treaty with the U.S., the McLane-Ocampo Treaty, but the U.S. never ratified it.)

Almanac is not just a group of acrobats though. Their acting is top notch, and they integrate more lyrical dance into their choreography too. There are beautiful pas de deux in A Door in the Desert which show the interaction between couples through acrobatics and dance. Worthy of distinction is a dance between Becerra and Burgio after they are not allowed to board a plane. Ironically, the two were traveling with the donkey, which passed through security with no problem! (Perhaps to signify how arbitrary it sometimes is?) The couple does an aggressive dance to quick music. Their necks are often hooked onto the foot of the other. The movement communicates that they are connected, together, but that it is rough going—this is not a smooth and easy interaction.

All in all, Fronteras: A Door in the Desert kept me on the edge of my seat, waiting for the next move, but also thinking, for the entire show. It was thrilling to see the acrobatic tricks and the variations on the borders theme were riveting. The acting was at times very humorous, while at other times it was heart-wrenching to see people rejected by others. The troupe received a well-deserved and rousing standing ovation during the curtain call. To close the evening, a representative from the Mexican Consulate presented Emmanuel Becerra and the Almanac Dance Circus Theatre with certificates of recognition.

A Conversation about a Door in the Desert

Editor’s Note: A Door in the Desert was the second of two companion pieces which represent the culmination of a collaboration over the course of 4 months. The other show An Homage to Whatshername appeared on May 3rd, and was not seen by our reviewers.  Learn more about this project from its creators here.

Jane is a director and dramaturg

Plotz is an admin by day, clown by night

Jane: What was in your pockets for this?

Plotz: My training is in clown, but there’s a lot of overlap between clown and circus, so I’ll admit that I already have some strong ideas about this kind of piece. So I came in with a preconceived notion of what a clown/circus piece should be. You?

 Jane: I was on a grant panel that reviewed the funding for Almanac, so I’ve seen their pitch as a company. I know they’ve had a lot of success in a short time, and that they’re very good at presenting and marketing themselves, so I had a vague expectation that the show would be good, but that’s it. Do you want to start with the design?

 Plotz: Design was not a big part of this piece. I didn’t notice any real intention in the lights. The costumes were functional. And I think all of that was fine. This was a piece about bodies in space, so it didn’t really hinder the experience. 

 Jane: The floating cactuses at different levels evoked a vast desert landscape with a tongue-in-cheek feel. As it turns out however, that wasn’t really the environment of the piece.  I have to say that the and style set me up to expect a satire or an exploration of what Americans think of as Mexican culture. And when that didn’t happen I was a little put off. The cactuses and the burro all pointed to very stereotypical markers of “Mexican-ness” and when they weren’t explicitly undermined, or weren’t part of an examination of those markers, it made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how the play wanted me to feel about them. 

 Plotz: I felt the same way, but because this was a collaboration with Mexican artists and involved the Mexican consulate, I decided they know better than my white ass what’s racist or stereotypical and let it go. 

 Jane: Yeah, I kind of feel that way, too. I’m also white. But dramaturgically, an inflatable cartoon cactus is sets a tone and I don’t think it was the same tone that the piece itself set. 

We didn’t talk about sound. 

 Plotz: I’m indifferent. I think the sound mostly functioned as music that was part of the dance and circus pieces, so it’s hard to consider it as a design element. I did love the moment when the burro was plucking out Justin Bieber’s ‘sorry’ on the guitar. 

 Jane: That made me giggle. I wish the guitar had been used more. Whenever I see an instrument on stage, especially in a piece that’s so body-oriented I want to hear it! 

 Plotz: Yeah, for sure. I think the heart of the experience was watching the performers, though. This was a visual thing at it’s heart. 

 Jane: Yes, particularly their guest artist Emmanuel Becerra was incredible to watch. All of the cast are impressive acrobats. But Becerra is a compelling all around performer. 

 Plotz: He’s a compelling clown. His performance was very truthful and never exaggerated, I agree. And I agree that these are talented, risk-taking dancers. 

 Jane: A strong ensemble. 

 Plotz: Yes. A lot of trust and a lot of professionalism there. You can’t fake that kind of work. But can we go back to what you’re saying about Becerra? We talked about this a little before. 

 Jane: Yeah, I think that Becerra in particular lived in the moments that he was acting. And I think in the rest of the performance there was a lot of indicating. I mean that the performers pointed to ideas and experiences but did not embody them. A good example is the bit where the two women are dancing to no music for a really long time, and feeling awkward about it. 

 Plotz: Right. That was a really good bit, but it didn’t quite land because it didn’t have enough empathy. It was more of a wink than a truthful human experience. We talk about this a lot in clown. I think if the cast had gone a little deeper, the could have brought something really profound out of that bit. 

 Jane: The other reason that it didn’t work for me is that it was an idea that was kind of orphaned in the overall experience. Which happened a lot. Almanac is a Dance Circus Theater, and their mission is to break down the walls between these arts. 

 Plotz: A great mission, by the way. 

Jane: I agree. And I think they nail dance (their work is compelling, precise and original) and as we discussed, they are talented circus performers. For me as a dramaturg especially, though, theater is the weakest component of the work. 

 Plotz: I agree, although I look at it a little differently. To me, part of circus is clown. And clown means always telling your story incredibly precisely. I think that in this piece Almanac had moments of storytelling precision, but the overall show was vague and disjointed. The themes were not clear. 

 Jane: Right. And I don’t need the theme to hit me over the head, or a story for that matter. But there’s a place where finding connections is exciting, and a place where it’s frustrating and in this piece it was frustrating. The bits about going through airport security, and that impressive acrobatic series about ‘who’s in and who’s out’ seemed to point very clearly to the stated themes of the show, but other parts- such as the partners dance, the bit about the Olympics, the thing about swimming- they all made me feel like I’d missed something by not being in the rehearsal room. 

There’s an outside eye listed for this piece, but no director. That’s very evident. There’s no unifying vision, and no one to make sure that the experience is cohesive. 

 Plotz: Well this is an argument that you and I have had before. I believe that an ensemble can present a unified vision.

 Jane: And I’m an autocrat, right. I know. I think this piece is an argument in my favor though. A good director, who can facilitate without disrupting the ensemble’s vision would have made this piece so much stronger. And I think it would bring them closer to their mission. Circus and dance don’t have to tell a story in the way that theater does. It can just be a visual experience. If theater is part of what you do, you need a clarified through line, whether that’s an idea or a narrative.

 Plotz: I disagree. I think that this piece wasn’t as cohesive or precise in storytelling as it could have been, but I don’t think that’s because there was no director. Directors are just as likely to produce a muddy vision as groups are. More likely, because they aren’t being checked by their colleagues. I think the issues that made the theater aspect of this less compelling than it could have been have more to do with stakes and specificity, which ensembles can create as well as directors. 

An example is Emmanuel’s trying to enter the country. We know that he wants to come into the United States, and he says this is to visit a family that he’s never known. It’s important because they are blood. Those stakes aren’t very high. Not inherently, they could be if we knew the character better, if we’d been introduced to what meeting his family means to him. But as it stands, we feel that if he doesn’t get past this border, the worst thing that could happen to him is that he will go back to his presumably good life in Mexico. The character and what he wants are too vague to have personal or political meaning.

Jane: Someone pointed out to me that some Mexican immigrants enter the country saying that they are going to visit family, and then stay.

Plotz: Did it seem like that was the story the were telling?

 Jane: Not really, but that might be a limitation in my knowledge about the issues.

 Plotz: Fair enough.

 Jane: And I have to say I thought it was strange that the focus of this piece about the Mexico and the border focused so much on the airport. On those who have money for tickets and access to visas. Not because those stories aren’t interesting or important, but because it’s a little out of step with a conversation that’s really front and center in the country right now. 

I think if you want to focus on the alienation and racism against Mexican people, then you have to get, again, more specific. What is the relationship between the world of this guy being hassled in a Kafkaesque line and the cactuses? What can we learn about that experience that is specifically Mexican? Particularly because this was a collaboration with a Mexican artist, it was a chance to learn something that we (I certainly) don’t know much about, which is the relationship to the border from the Mexican point of view. 

We all know the airport security story when it comes to black and brown people, especially those who “look Arab.” Are they generalizing this story as part of an exploration of otherizing? Or are they taking Bacerra’s personal story? And if so, what does it add to the conversation about insider/outsider politics?

 Plotz: I care less about what story you decide to tell then I care that you tell it specifically. This is a complaint I have about some of the physical bits. For example, they continually built doorways out of human bodies for travelers to go through. It was impressive acrobatics, but what does it mean? Why are there doorways if we’re talking about barriers? Are they saying that human connections make holes in the walls that humans erect? I just came up with that and it’s kind of  a stretch. When you tell stories with bodies, the bodies are a language, and it matters what they mean. 

Other bits were more precise. Like the higher and higher officials asking for his passport. That’s an example of really good physical storytelling. It worked physically and symbolically, and it told a clear story. 

 Jane: I agree. I would have loved to see that whole story explored more deeply, with less time given to the extraneous stuff. I am excited about the possibility that Almanac can build a real, meaningful storytelling language out of their considerable dance and acrobatic skills. 

 Plotz: I agree that they have the potential to do this, if they put more focus on the message. 

 Jane: It doesn’t even have to be a narrative, theater doesn’t.

 Plotz: No but it has to have a cohesive thing to say. And then they need to take care that every element serves that message. If not, they’re still an extremely impressive dance troupe. 

 Jane: I believe that we’ll see them grow into the theater part of Circus Dance Theater. 

 Plotz: I hope so, I think it’s a really great addition to the Philly landscape.