Alyssa Kerper

Posted June 25th, 2018

The newest show from Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, xoxo moongirl, comes this Tuesday, June 26 to Christ Church Neighborhood House. Fringe favorite Almanac is the company behind Exile 2588 (2016) and Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes (2017)and will appear again in the 2018 Festival with Jeanne/Jean/John/Jawn, a circus extravaganza.

Almanac’s current show xoxo moongirl is an autobiographical solo performance by company member Nicole Burgio, who tells the story of her childhood, which was plagued by domestic violence and abuse. Using many forms of performance art, Burgio confronts her past and, in it, finds hope and resilience.

“I think often times when bad or violent things are portrayed in media and popular culture, they are either communicated about in a very clinical way so that the facts are all 100% accurate, or they can be very graphic,” director Ben Grinberg tells FringeArts, discussing the timeliness of the show amid the #MeToo era. “Using dance, circus, and theater, we can get at all of the feelings and sensations and acts of processing that are messy and not clear cut.”

Grinberg acknowledges the beauty in watching this authentic story in a time when women’s voices are finally starting to be heard, and when violence against these women is being brought to light. “Cole [Nicole Burgio] is brave and vulnerable in showing what her personal experience has been, how she has overcome it, and how the story isn’t over and some things are not resolved,” he says. “Just seeing how graceful, powerful, and strong Cole is, in spite of where she’s come from, will be an inspiration.”

Almanac calls itself “an acrobatic response to stagnation in performance and inequity in society.” It is a multidisciplinary ensemble that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in circus performance and attacks the problems facing our world with honesty and whimsy. Despite showcasing a solo performer, xoxo moongirl was devised jointly by Grinberg (co-founder of Almanac) and other Almanac ensemble members, and it features original music composed and performed by Melanie Hsu.

The piece is especially meaningful because of the time that has gone into its creation, hours put in long before the idea for the show ever came about. Nicole Burgio has been studying gymnastics since age three. After years of training, she earned a master’s degree in clinical and counseling health psychology, and went on to attend the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. She now tours with circus companies internationally when she’s not performing here in Philly with Almanac.

“This is the time for this piece because in many ways, Cole is ready to share this piece,” Grinberg explains. “She’s worked incredibly hard over her whole life…to get to the point where she is ready — uniquely qualified — to share this piece.”  

Burgio’s emotional performance tells a story that is sadly not unique to her and her family. Abuse continues to affect millions of people around the world, but this show hopes to uplift rather than depress. Despite living through many challenging years, Burgio refuses to be defined by her experiences, instead deriving strength from them and using her art and her platform to inspire others and instill the strength needed to overcome.

—Alyssa Kerper

Broad Street Review



June 28, 2018 

Almanac Dance Circus Theatre’s latest production represents a step away from the ensemble-based work for which the troupe is known. xoxo moongirl explores the abuse suffered in performer and company founder Nicole Burgio’s childhood home and the ramifications of that abuse in her adult life. Burgio integrates storytelling, physical comedy, dance, and trapeze to reflect on her very personal story. 

Burgio sets the piece around the fraught family's dining-room table. (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

Almanac makes beautiful use of the open brick space at Christ Church Neighborhood House. A simple table stands center, brilliantly red aerial silks hang to the right, and to the left a projection of the moon slowly waxes and wanes. Dressed in white with crimson socks and lipstick, carefully walking backward across the table, Burgio is immediately captivating. She turns to us and asks disarmingly of the table’s edge, “Am I close?”

Clear, specific, honest

Much of the credit for the success of this piece goes to Burgio, who brings a full toolbox of performance skills to the stage. Her facial expressions are unembellished and human and elicit the kind of laughter that comes with deep recognition. 

It’s nice to see more straightforward storytelling in a circus piece, as these tend to be more abstract. Burgio’s narratives are clear, specific, and honest. As a storyteller, though, she’s a little guarded, choosing to tell safer stories about events that have a conclusion rather than complex emotions she’s still working through. 

Those emotions come through in the movement. In a dance of aggression and pleading that combines abused and abuser into one intertwined entity, Burgio makes clear how inextricable they are, and how dangerous. Within the tumble are small, repeated movements that feel imbued with deep meaning even if they aren’t recognizable as particular actions. The result is dance that evokes the specificity of her parents’ fraught interactions and also wider themes common to all abusive relationships. 

In another breathtaking sequence about fear and perseverance, Burgio makes the brilliant choice to use aerial silks while playing her mother. Hanging an inexpert and loved character high above the ground, tangled in silk, allows us to feel her mother’s vulnerability and resilience in a visceral way. 

Learning to fly

Burgio’s most moving physical metaphor uses a static trapeze, hung over her family’s contentious dining-room table. In a ruffled dress, she uses the tension between the strength and grace inherent in trapeze work to demonstrate the way the eldest daughter in an abusive home balances outward ease with inner struggle. 

Musician Mel Hsu scores each movement and circus piece live with stark, resonant original compositions. Deep, haunting vocals, cello, and percussion fill the space and add complexity to the movement. While the two women never interact directly, the connection between them is palpable, as though Hsu is a heart, pumping sustaining music into the dance. 

xoxo moongirl still reveals some vestigial signs of an art form in transition. The piece’s circus and storytelling elements are largely separate, and integrating the more polished narrative with the roiling emotion below would bring it more immediacy. Some visual metaphors lack clarity, particularly the theme of visiting the moon. It’s hard to understand how the fantasy interacts with Burgio’s reality and to know when and why she returns home. 

Any lack of clarity, however, is more than overwhelmed by the beauty and wonderful visual surprises Burgio and director Ben Grinberg offer. Using physicality to tell clear, complex stories is harder than it seems, and with xoxo moongirl Almanac comes into its own, building work where dance, theater, and circus integrate in the service of an important story.

Broad Street Review



June 19, 2018

Nicole Burgio started doing gymnastics at the age of three and continued to study and compete through her high-school and college years. But when she began graduate school (Burgio holds a master’s degree in clinical and counseling health psychology from the Philadelphia School of Osteopathic Medicine), she put gymnastics aside to focus on her studies. Until one night, when the Ringling Brothers Circus came to town and Burgio bought herself a ticket.

As she watched the acrobats, she thought to herself, “I could do this.” The Master of Ceremonies came over to her after the show, having noticed that she was totally enthralled. He told her about the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts… and a new way to use her years of gymnastic training opened up for Burgio.

She started taking circus classes at the school for up to five hours a day. From there, she found her way to the intersection of circus arts and theater, becoming lead acrobatics coach for Philadelphia’s Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. Now, she’s a world-renowned circus artist in her own right, touring with circuses in Europe for six months out of the year. It was during her downtime on tour that Burgio began to imagine staging a solo show with Almanac when she returned to Philadelphia.

“They don’t have to define you”

Her artistic collaborators at Almanac welcomed her ideas, and they began to explore her concepts by coming together and playing — Almanac creates all of its works as devised theater through a multidisciplinary exploration of storytelling and acrobatics. But when they started to explore her initial ideas, Burgio didn’t expect the autobiographical story that she began to tell: growing up in a family racked by the chaos of domestic violence. It is a story, that even as she shares it onstage, continues to unfold in her family.

“I come from a broken home, where chaos, domestic abuse, and fighting were a daily routine. I firmly believe that stories like this need to be told, and [this needs] to happen now,” Burgio explains. “This is how I’m choosing to use my voice in an era where sexism, bullying, and abuse are rampant. Bad things happen and they don’t have to define you. This is for the underdogs, the underheard, and the improbable.”

Flying at night

The show that emerged — xoxo moongirl — will run June 26 through 28 in Old City. Burgio emphasizes that the show is funny and adventurous: It tackles the very serious subject of abuse in a unique way, by using acrobatics as well as language. She credits director Ben Grinberg and her colleagues at Almanac for helping her to find this balance. And the show features live original music from returning Almanac artist Mel Hsu (Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes).

xoxo moongirl is all of the things that life is — both light and dark,” Burgio reflects. “Circus performers are just like the human beings sitting next to you, except we go fly at night.”