The circus atmosphere started the moment you reached the second floor of Dance Place. There was juggler Nathaniel Allenby with his sparkly red coat, easy patter, and awesome moves with three clubs—Cascade! Reverse cascade! Mills’ Mess! (My husband juggles, and he was hugely impressed.)
You could don a feather boa and pose in a photo booth. A concession table sold animal crackers and $1 bags of popcorn. A “Tarot” reader gave you a card that said either “Big Top” or “Side Show” … and that ended up making a big difference in your next impression of “Without a Net,” Malashock Dance’s show in the La Jolla Playhouse WOW Festival.
A “Big Top” card took you into the Malashock studio, set up in the round, for a deft, dark mix of circus and dance. Acrobat-sisters Juniper and Lily Nolander twined on a platform, while eight dancers, in shabby-garish costumes as if for a Fellini film, did a high-stepping walk around them and vied for our attention. “Don’t look at them,” one of the dancers whispered. By the way, no one was credited for the Felliniesque costumes, but they were fantastic.
Lindsey Billings did graceful spins and upside-down splits on the aerial lyra, and Lily Nolander performed on trapeze; and they were indeed without a net. Allenby, founder of Cirque Quirk, kept things moving as the ring master. Sadly, he didn’t juggle in the show.
Showing off her own impressive circus chops, Malashock Dance member Courtney Giannone performed on the Cyr wheel, provoking oohs and aahs as she spun inches from the floor. Later, she used a harness-like contraption, kind of like a baby bouncer.
Choreographer John Malashock often plays with acrobatic partnering, and other company dancers did circus-like moves. Christine Marshall went into a deep backbend. Justin Viernes dangled upside down from the rings like the Hanged Man in the Tarot.
Though the circus artists mostly occupied center-stage, the dance smartly complemented them, setting an edgy European-circus mood. Two stiff-limbed couples were robotic dolls doing combative partnering. To a quick waltz that sounded like it was played on a hurdy-gurdy, dancers, drooping like somnambulists, formed a dejected conga line.
I was primed to see something weirder at the midpoint in the 80-minute program, when my half of the audience switched places with the folks who’d been at the “Side Show.”
Weird, it was. Scarlet Checkers, who described herself as a “clowntortionist,” did shoulder-dislocating contortions and even sword-swallowing, with lots of patter in-between. In two brief interludes, Tammuz Dubnov and Mary Jane Lance did balletic moves that were mostly a way to show off their backdrop: a very cool screen developed by Dubnov’s tech company, Zuzor, that responds when you move in front of it.
But Scarlet Checkers was essentially the whole show. Forty minutes is a long time for any one person to hold a stage. Checkers made a game effort, but “Without a Net” would have been a lot stronger without a side show.