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Lionel Popkin & Elephants Dance @ REDCAT

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photo by Scott Groller
photo of Lionel Popkin "bacon" by Scott Groller

photo of Lionel Popkin "bacon" by Scott Groller
Who knew local choreographer/dancer Lionel Popkin has such an interesting background? I did know about his New York tenure with the iconic Trisha Brown Dance Company and his shorter stints with smaller downtown groups, but none of that revealed his unique heritage and its influence on his recent dance making. A few years ago, he presented a duet as part of the summer NOW Festival at REDCAT that, among other movement ideas, included dancing with his partner’s finger in his mouth. A strange relationship with little explanation offered, it now starts to make sense to me.

Promotional materials describe Popkin’s divergent cultural identities (Jewish dad and South Asian mom) and his complicated connection to Ganesh, the revered deity in the Hindu religion who is known as the Remover of Obstacles. In There Is An Elephant In This Dance, which opens Thursday at REDCAT and runs through the weekend, the artist and his colleagues play off a comically overlarge plush elephant costume, worn in pieces or as a whole.

Yikes! Is this a Sesame Street knock-off geared to the under ten crowd and their parents?

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I think not.

The quartet of outstanding performers—specifically chosen for their differing backgrounds—includes the Bessie Award-winning dancer Carolyn Hall, longtime downtown NY performer/improvisor-par-excellance Ishmael Houston-Jones and Seattle’s 33 Fainting Spells alumna Peggy Piacenza.


Aurally surrounding the choreographic eloquence, clever direction and sophisticated thematic layering of Elephant is an original score by composer Robert Een. This cellist/vocalist grew up in the music and performance world alongside genius Meredith Monk and has since made a multitude of evocative scores for dance and theater. For this piece, he is joined by hand drummer extraordinaire Hearn Gadbois and vocalist Valecia Phillips.

So, no, just because there’s what looks like a stuffed animal on the stage, this is NOT PBS afternoon programming! The high quality of the artists involved and the biographical connections to the obvious and unspoken interpretations of the pachyderm foretell a possibly holistic theatrical experience. Not to mention some outright righteous dancing!

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