Family in the balance

Almanac Dance Circus Theatre presents Nicole Burgio’s xoxo moongirl’

3 minute read
Burgio sets the piece around the fraught family's dining-room table. (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)
Burgio sets the piece around the fraught family's dining-room table. (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

Almanac Dance Circus Theatre’s latest production represents a step away from the ensemble-based work for which the troupe is known. xoxo moongirl explores the abuse suffered in performer and company founder Nicole Burgio’s childhood home and the ramifications of that abuse in her adult life. Burgio integrates storytelling, physical comedy, dance, and trapeze to reflect on her very personal story.

Almanac makes beautiful use of the open brick space at Christ Church Neighborhood House. A simple table stands center, brilliantly red aerial silks hang to the right, and to the left a projection of the moon slowly waxes and wanes. Dressed in white with crimson socks and lipstick, carefully walking backward across the table, Burgio is immediately captivating. She turns to us and asks disarmingly of the table’s edge, “Am I close?”

Clear, specific, honest

Much of the credit for the success of this piece goes to Burgio, who brings a full toolbox of performance skills to the stage. Her facial expressions are unembellished and human and elicit the kind of laughter that comes with deep recognition.

It’s nice to see more straightforward storytelling in a circus piece, as these tend to be more abstract. Burgio’s narratives are clear, specific, and honest. As a storyteller, though, she’s a little guarded, choosing to tell safer stories about events that have a conclusion rather than complex emotions she’s still working through.

Those emotions come through in the movement. In a dance of aggression and pleading that combines abused and abuser into one intertwined entity, Burgio makes clear how inextricable they are, and how dangerous. Within the tumble are small, repeated movements that feel imbued with deep meaning even if they aren’t recognizable as particular actions. The result is dance that evokes the specificity of her parents’ fraught interactions and also wider themes common to all abusive relationships.

In another breathtaking sequence about fear and perseverance, Burgio makes the brilliant choice to use aerial silks while playing her mother. Hanging an inexpert and loved character high above the ground, tangled in silk, allows us to feel her mother’s vulnerability and resilience in a visceral way.

The piece combines silks with trapeze work and gymnastics. (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)
The piece combines silks with trapeze work and gymnastics. (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

Learning to fly

Burgio’s most moving physical metaphor uses a static trapeze, hung over her family’s contentious dining-room table. In a ruffled dress, she uses the tension between the strength and grace inherent in trapeze work to demonstrate the way the eldest daughter in an abusive home balances outward ease with inner struggle.

Musician Mel Hsu scores each movement and circus piece live with stark, resonant original compositions. Deep, haunting vocals, cello, and percussion fill the space and add complexity to the movement. While the two women never interact directly, the connection between them is palpable, as though Hsu is a heart, pumping sustaining music into the dance.

xoxo moongirl still reveals some vestigial signs of an art form in transition. The piece’s circus and storytelling elements are largely separate, and integrating the more polished narrative with the roiling emotion below would bring it more immediacy. Some visual metaphors lack clarity, particularly the theme of visiting the moon. It’s hard to understand how the fantasy interacts with Burgio’s reality and to know when and why she returns home.

Any lack of clarity, however, is more than overwhelmed by the beauty and wonderful visual surprises Burgio and director Ben Grinberg offer. Using physicality to tell clear, complex stories is harder than it seems, and with xoxo moongirl Almanac comes into its own, building work where dance, theater, and circus integrate in the service of an important story.

What, When, Where

xoxo moongirl. Created and performed by Nicole Burgio, Ben Grinberg directed. Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. Through June 28, 2018, at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, Philadelphia.

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