On the postcard announcing Lava Love, directed and choreographed by Sarah East Johnson, four sturdy women stand with feet planted firmly and arms akimbo, their pose summoning up George Reeves as television’s black-and-white Superman. While Johnson and her six female performers may not be fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, they do have subtle but strong messages to convey. The show opens Thursday at the Flea Theater.
“I’m interested in reshaping the way people think about what women are capable of,” Johnson explains during a rehearsal break at the Park Slope loft where she lives and works. She and three of her cohorts have just sweated their way through the hoop-diving segment of Lava Love, tumbling through and over standing hoops in an increasingly demanding sequence of musically timed moves. Other “acts” in this circus-inspired show include trapeze, gymnastics, acrobatics, wrestling, and swing dancing (the latter two deftly woven together), and a brief pogo stick “one-liner.”
All seven women recently spent a month at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, training intensively six hours a day. “It served so many different purposes-the least of which was learning new tricks. We did learn a lot of those, but we also learned how hard you can push yourself, how to focus, how to move past your fears. It was more like ‘basic training’-anything we approach now, we can up the skill level, because we’re so much stronger,” Johnson says.
“When people see an all-woman troupe, they may think it’s about excluding men. It’s not, necessarily-it’s more that I really enjoy working with women. There’s a certain kind of energy created when it’s women working together cooperatively, pushing boundaries for themselves and for their gender. That inspires me, and I think it inspires other people.”
What she also finds inspiring are natural phenomena, particularly volcanoes (hence the evening’s title and her decision to name her troupe LAVA). “The movements we do, the relationships between people when they’re moving together in this work, are inspired by relationships I’ve studied in science.” Soon she’s discussing tectonic plates, referring to collisions and interdependency, saying “I like to work in metaphors.” Video sequences “suggest the possibility of the movement being metaphorical; the videos help me bring other imagery into the theater.”
That theater is particularly cozy, affording Johnson the opportunity for a longer run. She’s reshaping segments from previous shows to suit its dimensions.”What I lose in space and grandeur, I gain in intimacy.”