SANTA FE, N.M. — In Western culture, the archetypal “hero’s journey” tale has not changed much over the centuries.
It’s typically one male character conquering everything on his own, says Sarah East Johnson. The character doesn’t have supporters who help him along the way, and most of the story revolves around his fights and battles with whatever confronts him.
This traditional storytelling form is something East Johnson, artistic director of LAVA, a Brooklyn-based, feminist acrobatic and dance troupe, wanted to flip on its head.
In her new show, she has created a hero’s journey through a feminist lens, told primarily using dancing and tricks.
LAVA’s traveling show that premiered in December, “A Goddessey,” will be staged in New Mexico starting this weekend with the help of local circus group Wise Fool New Mexico. The performances will be in Santa Fe Saturday and Sunday, and at Wise Fool’s Peñasco outpost the following weekend.
“A lot of these stories are about this lone protagonist conquering things and facing challenges,” said East Johnson. “It’s a lot about adversity and dominance, and we’re bringing in a lot of other tools for cooperation, vulnerability, community and trying to fill in that part of the story.”
East Johnson, who created and directs the show, and performs along with six other female LAVA members, said the show begins in a “pre-patriarchal” community called Arcadia that then transitions into a setting called “The City.” She described this setting as where the world is today, somewhere women live in oppression.
That’s where the journey begins. The traveler – or the hero of this tale – finds her way through various landscapes where she learns different lessons, all inspired by geological or environmental structures. The traveler character, she said, is performed by a different LAVA performer for each landscape, in scenes that start with a cave, but go on to include a forest, inner and outer space, the desert and so on.
“Each landscape has a different lesson,” said East Johnson. The cave, for instance, represents the importance of underground social movements, paying homage to pre-Stonewall LGBT culture. Rocks and mountains symbolize the relationship between the human race and the natural world, and the two having a “reunion” of sorts.
The acrobatic movements and choreography all are inspired by the landscapes, said East Johnson. Much of the cave scene was developed with the performers’ eyes closed, resulting in “soft, subtle” movements, while the action in the rocks and mountains scene is more “boisterous” and clownish, like at a party.
“And we end with this vision of a better future,” she said. Once the traveler gets through six landscapes, she finds herself in a fantasy-like setting on the ocean floor where a new Earth is being created. East Johnson described this world as a “feminist utopia.”
For its shows in Santa Fe this weekend, LAVA also includes a performance with about 12 amateurs who have taken free workshops with the troupe this week through Wise Fool New Mexico.
She said the short acrobatic and dance performance created by LAVA will be inspired by local environment and wildlife, and how it all connects. She said she has been studying New Mexico flora, fauna and landscape features like cottonwood trees, roadrunners and mica.
Wise Fool and LAVA have collaborated before on performances at events like the Michigan Women’s Festival, according to Wise Fool artistic director Amy Christian.
Christian, who will also perform in the LAVA show as the Angry Volcano Goddess in the rocks and mountains scene, said the two companies both have a feminist outlook. She said she wanted to host LAVA to give Northern New Mexico a look at their “social justice perspective,” one not always seen in this art form.
The LAVA show is “exactly the kind of work we want to present,” said Christian. “We want people to see how circus can be used outside the traditional construct.”
The story of “A Goddessey” is one of hope, said East Johnson.
“Right now, things can feel so negative in the political and environmental spectrum; making a show where we celebrate our connections to each other, our physical self and the environment that is joyful and beautiful … it’s important medicine for us right now,” she said.