With the trumpeting of elephants, the crack of whips and the flying colors of carnival tents, Small Elephant Stories brings the circus to Faulconer Gallery this weekend in the under-an-hour form of an incredible and novel dance performance.
Stemming from an idea gleaned from the children’s book The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, Small Elephant Stories is an exploration of movement and narrative.
“There are a lot of interpolated stories within one overall story,” said Gaelyn Hutchinson ’13.
Celeste Miller, Dance, who is the Director of Small Elephant Stories, had the idea to create a performance based not off of any original choreography, but rather on the creative whims of the small group of dancers.
The exterior framework that holds the various stories together is that of a vaudeville or circus troupe travelling to Sarasota, Florida. Their enigmatic and heroic leader is the fearless strong-woman Charmion, a striptease trapeze artist snatched from the turn of the 20th century, when she became the feature of Thomas Edison’s 1901 film “Trapeze Disrobing Act.”
Deposited in the unfamiliar milieu of a Grinnell dance troupe, Charmion represents the mystery and wonder of her era, disappearing during the rationality of daytime to reappear at night, every time with a new and intriguing story.
Bound together through the anticipation of the next small elephant story, these tales comprise an enthralling fantasy, going beyond both Grinnell and the elephantine personality of Charmion.
“The connotations that the word elephant brings supply the canvas on which the dance company reconstructs something else—something emotional, something moral and something whimsical,” Hutchinson said.
Given the phrase ‘small elephant stories,’ the student performers were encouraged to create their own interpretative stories and movements to reenact the stories Charmion brings home each night.
“The dance is constructed in layers—words, music, and movement all carry individual emphases or amounts of meaning to create the entirety of the work,” Hutchinson said.
Aside from the role she plays as a dancer in Small Elephant Stories, Ana Novak ’14 also served as a student director, inventing her own collaboratively choreographed dance piece. Instead of relying on contributing to the narrative already in place, Novak took a completely different perspective on the idea of ‘small elephant stories.’
“When I first heard the term ‘small elephant story,’ I was coming at it from more of a science perspective… I thought of DNA as this small entity that has an elephant-like role in the world,” Novak said.
Using videos, illustrations and textbook interpretations of DNA and DNA replication as inspiration, Novak invented movements and choreography that tell the story of the dance performers as DNA fragments adjusting and mutating to occupy the space and story around them.
Like the vaudeville and carnival story the dancers tell, Novak’s piece—christened Our Family, Elephant DNA as a play on the scientific term for the elephant family elephantidae—contributes to the unconventional mix of styles and topics.
“It’s like one collaborative hodgepodge of all these styles of movement,” said dancer Eva Dawson ’14.
Additionally, Hutchinson, as a former member of Nouveau Cirque—a Cirque du Soleil-style, no animal, acrobatic circus—brought a variety of acrobatic expertise to the production, contributing to Small Elephant Stories’ unique storytelling style.
With numerous lifts, balancing acts and references to the circus, the performance draws readily for Hutchinson’s experience, but still maintains the antiquated illusion and larger-than-life quality of the traditional lions-tigers-and-bears circus.
“There’s a section where we simulate tightrope walking and there’s movement that correlates to trapeze movement,” Dawson said. “There are handstands and lifts and jumps that are more acrobatic.”
In combination with the bizarre elephant-oriented stories, the splashes of circus arts leave the vaudeville troupe, along with the audience, hungering for Charmion’s next story.
As Theatre professor Craig Quintero’s earlier piece Hand to Mouth did, Small Elephant Stories fills the small, dark and surreal installation space of Faulconer Gallery with out-of-this-world storytelling, inhabiting the space with their oddball vaudeville act.
“The aesthetic of the surroundings changes how we’re interfacing with the story and how we feel in the moment, which then changes the movement,” Hutchinson said. “It’s probably most influential on the side of the emotion.”
The dilapidated, stripped-down feel of the installation contributes to the nostalgic, imaginative feel of Small Elephant Stories, ideal for the circus aesthetic they bring.
“There’s this kind of vintage texture to our dance and these props, like old suitcases and old overcoats, that are also vintage-y and I think the space echoes that,” Dawson said.
Small Elephant Stories is accompanied by a number of rhythmic and improvisational arrangements, featuring performers on a wide variety of unorthodox “instruments.” From the inexact whistle of blown bottles to the amiable hum of kazoos and the slapstick joy of what Hutchinson calls “body percussion,” the whimsical cavalcade of homemade instrumentation is meant to recall the jovial tooting of the classic circus calliope, a steam-powered organ.
Mimicking the vaudeville quality of the travelling troop of Small Elephant Stories, the music features pieces from a number of estranged music styles, from Elvis Presley’s lilting rendition of Blue Moon to more vigorous orchestral arrangements.
In addition to dancing for the performance, Hutchinson arranged the music for Small Elephant Stories, sourcing from a wide array of musical styles in the same way the dance features a variety of dances.
“There are several styles, from long, drawn-out ostinato movements to Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk—a very iconic piece—which in a way matches the way the stories go back and forth between very heavy and then extremely light-hearted, touching, painful,” Hutchinson said.
The connection between the disparate elements of the performance became evident to many of the performers as well.
“The music, I think, matches the space. I can’t really explain why—it’s that vintage aesthetic again,” Dawson said.
With the same zany fervor and quirky surrealism they maintain for the entire 45 minutes, the piece abruptly ends, with the performers departing for distant Sarasota. They unfold their stories and their hearts to the audience, and then are off for another oddball adventure down the road, maintaining their fictional narrative to the end.
“The finale is really nice because we actually use the wall that moves to cover up half of the performers and then we open it up and then we close it all the way again and everybody’s gone,” Dawson said. “I think that’s a really cool point.”
Small Elephant Stories will be performed in Faulconer Gallery this Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.