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Dance Review: Lionel Popkin's 'There is An Elephant in This Dance' at REDCAT

May 21, 2010 |  1:45 pm

Elephant Drunks allegedly see pink ones. The white ones of the species are hard to unload.  Then there's the mascot of the Republican Party.  We're talking elephants, those lovable beasts with steel-trap memories.  Indeed, even the late George Balanchine couldn't refuse an offer from the Ringling Brothers to choreograph a work for some 50 of the mammals, albeit sans pointe shoes.

Now it's Lionel Popkin's turn to tackle the playful pachyderm.  The locally based dancer-choreographer's 50-minute opus, "There Is an Elephant in This Dance,” had its Los Angeles premiere Thursday at REDCAT (and runs through Sunday).

The son of a Jewish father and Hindu mother, Popkin makes use of his connection to Ganesh, the elephant god known as the Remover of Obstacles, in order to explore themes that include religious iconography and multiple identities. Abetted by cellist Robert Een's lush, dream-like score -- performed live by the composer, with percussionist Hearn Gadbois and vocalist Valecia Phillips (Een, too, contributed haunting vocals) -- the work also featured amusing video by Cari Ann Shim Sham and Kyle Ruddick.

Like Disney's dancing Hyacinth Hippo in “Fantasia” (modeled after famed ballerina Tania Riabouchinska), Peggy Piacenza kick-started the evening as the agile elephant in the room. Literally. Clad in a cuddly elephant costume (worn in pieces or as a whole throughout the work), Piacenza twirled and bounced, her arms filigreed and Shiva-esque.  Shedding her garb, she ceded the stage to Popkin, who performed a quirky, head-bobbing solo.  Feet rooted to the floor, Popkin exaggerated his breathing while executing fierce back-bends, his presence both mysterious and feral.

Dance The veteran Ishmael Houston-Jones then offered intense, one-legged balancing poses while licking -- yes, licking -- his hand, much like a big cat. The menagerie expanded as Carolyn Hall and Popkin performed a pas de deux that alternately resembled Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco, “The Creation of Adam” (outstretched arms reaching toward one another, index fingers barely touching), or a CSI/DNA scenario, with Hall's finger planted firmly in Popkin's mouth, the couple doggedly moving about the floor.

Weird? Yes. Engaging? Particularly so when Hall was wrapped around Popkin's neck like a feather boa draped on a drag queen. The couple's unison crouching to Phillips' tremolo vocals gave an expectant air to the proceedings. Rife with implications (a baby teething, the quest for human interaction, the will to survive), the dance also featured Houston-Jones and Hall in a postmodern jitterbug bopping to Een's plucked ostinato riffs.

And if an elephant could lead an aerobics class, Popkin, sporting the animal gear, was Jane Fonda in gray workout wear: Lunging, running in place, fist-pumping the air, Popkin even did squat thrusts in a DT-laden binge that, in the real world (bah!), would have resulted in a major hangover.

How, then, could this fabricated elephant have yielded so many identities?  Even the video beast veered from coy and demure to cocky and sly.  Chalk it up to the power of movement -- a slow turn of the head, a jaunty kick, a rah-rah step -- all fueling the fantastical imagery, as did Kathy Kaufmann's seductive lighting design.

Popkin, at one point shirtless with the head on backwards, may ultimately have offered more questions than answers, but then again, art should be about dialogue, however deep, wistful or amusing.

-- Victoria Looseleaf

Lionel Popkin: There is An Elephant in This Dance, REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, $10-$20: (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org

Photos: Lionel Popkin, top, and Ishmael Houston-Jones with Peggy Piacenza. Credit: Anne Cusack /Los Angeles Times.

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