Clowns and Martians

Do-it-all dancer Travis Mesman stars in Thom Lewis' latest concert

Forget Dances With Wolves. Philadelphian Travis Mesman dances with puppets.

"I don't stand on my head or spin," he explains cheerfully, by phone from the City of Brotherly Love, about the performances he's doing now with the White Box Theatre. "But there is movement involved. We have to be more efficient with the overhead projector and very small puppets. It's not about me. It's about the objects I manipulate."

Puppet peripatetics are not Mesman's first deviation from conventional dance. Mesman, who will be a guest artist at this weekend's Thom Lewis Dance concert along with dance partner Christine Morano, has done just about every kind of movement there is in his packed dance career. He's worked with at least five professional dance companies, often more than one at the same time.

"It's been a great ride so far," he says. "I always have fun."

He's danced internationally with MOMIX, the inventive troupe that merges acrobatics with modern dance. He's done gigs with Cirque, sashayed through opera and drawn on four styles of modern dance with the intriguingly named troupes Scrap and Junk. Juggling, Brazilian capoeira and hip hop also make an appearance on his résumé.

At MOMIX, where he danced from 2000 to 2005, "They like to see men and women who are strong at both dance and body manipulation," he says. "With them, I could use every aspect of my training."

Mesman, now 34, came to dance late. In his native Mobile, Ala., he took to gymnastics at age 14 and trained intensively for four years.

"I was 20 years old before I decided that dance was going to be my career. Luckily, I got into the University of the Arts (in Philadelphia) and did 12 hours a day of solid training for four years."

No matter how many styles he dips into, he's always faithful to his ballet practice.

"I took ballet class this morning, and I make sure I go three or four times a week. It's important to keep your ballet skills up as a benchmark. If you want to put an arabesque into your choreography, you'd better make sure it's really an arabesque."

At this weekend's concert, Survival of the Artistic, he and Morano will perform his duet "Mars 4.2." They're meant to be Martians--maybe.

"If we were on the planet Mars, we would be creatures," he explains. "I'm not sure if it's one creature or two creatures attached and co-dependent. Christine and I never separate the whole time. Most of the time, she's off the ground, and I'm carrying her."

The five-minute piece, which Mesman has performed as a guest artist with many troupes, is danced to music that's "mixed organic electronic."

His solo, "Bart," takes its name from an odd character who used to hang around Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square near the University of the Arts, he says. In the piece, Bart becomes "sort of an abstract character, with a clown thing going on. It's sort of MOMIX-y, but with a sad twist to it."

Mesman performs it in whiteface, skullcap and baggy orange pants with suspenders. "None of the movement is dance vocabulary," he says.

Longtime dancer and choreographer Lewis, who's been with multiple Tucson companies, including Orts, Tenth Street and FUNHOUSE, says, "Travis and Christine are wonderful movers." Their duet, he writes, is a "stunning study in cantilever and counter-balance."

He started his eponymous Thom Lewis Dance last season with an electrifying opening concert. For this year's Survival of the Artistic, he's gathered together 15 dancers, hailing from Tucson troupes NEW ARTiculations and The Human Project, along with Joseph Rodgers, artistic director of Dancing in the Streets Arizona.

The concert showcases eight dances, including a Lewis premiere, "Is California Burning?" The concert opener rounds up five women and Lewis himself in a dance set to the surfer music of Beach Boy Brian Wilson and others. He reprises two other dances, "Frog and Fairytale" and "Hard Cheese," a 2005 work about rats that's the concert closer.

Guest choreographer Laura Rosenfeld-Spiri has two new pieces, one of them a duet for Lewis and Carolyn Minor, a Tucsonan who also once danced with MOMIX. Amy Barr-Holm of NEW ART contributes "Standing Water," which got an airing--or a splashing--at February's Ballet Tucson ROCS concert. The piece, Lewis notes, stars a "large sheet of plastic, three wet dancers and, of course, water."

he weekend ends at Centennial Hall with sterling classical dance from the Joffrey Ballet.

Based in Chicago since 1995, the respected company has gone through many mutations since it was founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. Mixing ballet and modern dance, the troupe has served as an incubator for assorted leading choreographers, including Twyla Tharp, whose "Deuce Coupe" was a Joffrey commission. Paul Taylor and George Balanchine also created work for the company, which was in New York in the '60s, '70s and '80s. The Joffrey also had a Los Angeles home for a time and traveled around the world, logging many thousands of miles, including trips through the old Soviet Union and every one of the 50 United States.

Now led by former Joffrey dancer Ashley C. Wheater, the troupe is making only four forays outside Chicago this season. Their Tucson trip is one.