I held my breath in glorious anticipation at several instances during Almanac Dance Circus Theatre’s captivating show Fronteras: A Door in the Desert. A Door in the Desert is the second part of Fronteras. (The other part, An Homage to Whatshername, was performed on May 3, also at FringeArts.) At FringeArts on May 5, for one performance only, Almanac presented their unique and exciting mix of acrobatics, dance and theatre in an exploration of different types of boundaries.
“Fronteras” is Spanish for “borders” or “frontiers.” These days we hear a lot about the U.S.-Mexican border, which has been a running theme in our current political climate. In A Door in the Desert this issue is also salient, represented by two performers — one who is a Mexican traveler carrying some kind of baggage, and the other wearing a donkey head.
Almanac is a young company, founded in 2013 in Philadelphia by Ben Grinberg, Adam Kerbel and Nick Gillette. The skilled and formidable ensemble for this piece includes Emmanuel Becerra (who is from Mexico and a resident artist with Almanac for the last four months), Evelyn Langley, Joseph Ahmed, Ben Grinberg, Nicole Burgio and Lauren Johns. Robin Stamey contributes as designer (along with Becerra) and Gillette serves as “Outside Eye.”
Recorded music and live dialogue are in both English and Spanish, which complement the border theme. “Disonancia” by Mexican band Ampersan opened the show, and their “Noche de fuego” accompanies a later scene. Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” is also featured, among other musical selections.
In addition to expertly executed daredevil acrobatics — handstands, flips, rolls, cartwheels, jumps and other tricks — there is provocative symbolism in A Door in the Desert. For example, some of the performers construct doors with their bodies stacked atop each other throughout the piece, which others then walk through, into another culture, “world” or context. In the first scene, there is also a key to the door that separates the U.S. from Mexico. Emmanuel and the donkey, Timoteo, are trying to cross in order to get to Arizona, but the American guarding it doesn’t have the key. Emmanuel produces it and explains that Mexico has had it since 1859, and that he is giving it to the guard who can now keep it and use it to open the door and let people pass. (Historically, 1859 was during the Benitez Juarez government in Mexico. At that time the U.S. offered diplomatic support to Mexico. The Mexican government also negotiated a treaty with the U.S., the McLane-Ocampo Treaty, but the U.S. never ratified it.)
Almanac is not just a group of acrobats though. Their acting is top notch, and they integrate more lyrical dance into their choreography too. There are beautiful pas de deux in A Door in the Desert which show the interaction between couples through acrobatics and dance. Worthy of distinction is a dance between Becerra and Burgio after they are not allowed to board a plane. Ironically, the two were traveling with the donkey, which passed through security with no problem! (Perhaps to signify how arbitrary it sometimes is?) The couple does an aggressive dance to quick music. Their necks are often hooked onto the foot of the other. The movement communicates that they are connected, together, but that it is rough going—this is not a smooth and easy interaction.
All in all, Fronteras: A Door in the Desert kept me on the edge of my seat, waiting for the next move, but also thinking, for the entire show. It was thrilling to see the acrobatic tricks and the variations on the borders theme were riveting. The acting was at times very humorous, while at other times it was heart-wrenching to see people rejected by others. The troupe received a well-deserved and rousing standing ovation during the curtain call. To close the evening, a representative from the Mexican Consulate presented Emmanuel Becerra and the Almanac Dance Circus Theatre with certificates of recognition.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
Fronteras: A Door in the Desert was performed on May 5, 2017 and was presented by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre at FringeArts — 140 North Columbus Boulevard, in Philadelphia, PA. For future FringeArts events, visit FringeArts’ calendar. For more information on Almanac Dance Circus Theatre events, visit their website or Facebook page.