By Christopher Squier
Elephants invaded Grinnell last semester with the Dance Ensemble/Activate group, led by Celeste Miller, Dance. This semester takes another thunderous step forward as the elephants seem to have settled into their new watering hole. When the Elephant Comes Crashing Through the Roof is a further development on the themes of storytelling and circus arts entertainment that was begun with Small Elephant Stories.
Small Elephant Stories followed the linear story of a travelling circus troupe on their way to Florida, eternally waylaid in town after town, recounting the small, thematic elephant stories left to them by their itinerant and charismatic leader Charmion. As a striptease trapeze artist and vaudeville strongwoman, Charmion was historically a circus performer, who became an integral part of Small Elephant Stories. The mystique and intrigue her act offered both to early twentieth century society and the dance troupe of Small Elephants Stories continues in this semester’s performance.
“Of course, the notion of elephants as small is ridiculous,” Miller said. “And then there’s the notion of, ‘What does the sudden appearance of an elephant mean?’ For me, it means that we get the opportunity to ask the questions: What if? Why not? Could it be? As an artist and a citizen and an educator, those are the three most essential questions that guide me in my life.”
Following the storyline from last semester’s performance, after her peculiar absence, Charmion returns at last, and in person, to When the Elephant Comes Crashing Through the Roof. Her story is still elusive, emerging during the second half of the performance.
“We’ve changed the structure,” Miller said. “Last time was a sequence of small elephant stories, and this would be more a collection of images that unfold, like looking inside a flower that the petals just keep on unfolding and you look deeper.”
Along with Charmion, the ensemble’s new performance includes the historical figure William Duggan, who ran away from home as a young boy to work with the elephants. Teddy Geiger ’15 became well-acquainted with elephants in rehearsing his role as Duggan.
“One of the most important rules of working with an elephant is compassion and patience, and it’s about connecting with someone else emotionally and basically,” Geiger said. “A true elephant handler never uses any force. They know how to speak with the elephant.”
Having reworked her prior theme in When the Elephant Comes Crashing Through the Roof, Miller and the dancers elaborated on the story lines, creating a more complex and outlandish world than previously existed.
“It’s really collaborative in terms of, I had the general idea and general story but then really invited the cast to be big contributors in terms of ideas and inspiration,” Miller said.
Each performer was encouraged to create a personal character—or sometimes more than one—to tack into and alongside the main plots of Charmion and Duggan. The odd but imaginative results, from a nun astounded to discover an elephant clicking and grunting outside her door to the sneezing illusionist and an unusual story about the Dalai Lama’s tractor—a gift from Stalin for the Dalai Lama’s garden—and the resulting tragedy with his elephant all serve to inflate the big tent and transform the space of Flanagan Theatre into a true circus establishment.
“For the circus act, [Celeste] wanted something that was completely absurd, out of the ordinary, completely impossible so that we would shoot for something really amazing,” said Geo Gomez ’15, concert columnist for the S&B. “She wanted more ‘wow’ factor in the dance we came up with. She didn’t care if the acts were impossible.”
“It was exciting because I felt like everybody put in parts of who they were…little personalities in our characters,” said Gigi Dichosa ’13. “All of us put our own fantasies into what we wanted to be…we got to channel in our ideas and fantasies.”
Working in a new location and with a decadent plentitude of circus props, stage sets and costume designs, When the Elephant Comes Crashing Through the Roof imagines a world unlike anything found elsewhere in Grinnell.
“What they’ve done with the space is really cool,” said Alex Krempely ’13. “They have a trapeze that they’ll drop down and it’ll swing back and forth, there’s an elevator placed in that corner and a live violinist and percussionist in the other corner, so it’s a lot of cool things to be lookingat, at any one given time.”
Krempely, who initially was brought into the dance troupe to teach circus arts, has since become a member. He will also be performing juggling and magic shows in the lobby prior to the show, adding his own story to the looping, labyrinthine stories of the performers.
“There are stories that come out of nowhere, stories that explode and then don’t really go anywhere, stories that build from one thing into a huge thing, stories that take a bunch of unrelated things and put them all together, some stories don’t even make sense,” Gomez said. “I feel like it has a lot to do with the potential of storytelling and what it does for the imagination.”
During the performance, there are beautiful scenes of the elephant maneuvering around the theater, its cumbersome feet treading the circumference of the stage, hidden by a curtain. What time and the performance reveals is that the elephant is only a sparse number of props, pieces of fabric held aloft on sticks, plastic tubing for a trunk and innumerable feet.
Memorably, the performers emerge on elephant-esque stilts—fitted with replica leathery skin and toenails—absurdly dance hobbling one-legged into a circle where the dancers ascend their stilt poles. In the center, an imaginative drama unfolds concerning an elephant conjured by an illusionist’s sneeze and the police repercussions for his accidental actions.
The performance progresses in this vein the whole time, navigating a complex web of stories connected to life in the circus, told beautifully through dance. Ultimately, When the Elephant Comes Crashing Through the Roof is utterly enjoyable and one of the best performances for Grinnell students by Grinnell students to be seen here. It is both breathtaking and enrapturing, full as a result of the collaborative process and whimsical historical storyline, of subtlety and interest.
Although When the Elephant Comes Crashing Through the Roof utilizes light-hearted imagery, it nevertheless traverses heavier territory. Circuses have long been the sites of the mistreatment of both elephants and people, and as a result the performers can talk about the ugly critiques of Charmion’s strongwoman arms and the struggles of the laboring William Duggar.
“There are a lot more running themes that play within this [performance], with gender, class and societal norms,” said Benji Zeledon ’14. “They’ve become a lot bigger images than the play.”
In fact, When the Elephant Comes Crashing Through the Roof justifies its continuation from last semester’s Small Elephant Stories through its superb storyline and drastic structural and visual development. Tickets are available at the Bucksbaum box office. Performances run in Flanagan Theatre from Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2:00 p.m.