Experiencing the Cosmos

Dance, drums, circus and other arts join forces for a 'MYTHOS' journey

Rick Wamer has already perfected the small gesture.

As a longtime mime and as artistic director of Theatrical Mime Theatre for the last four years, Wamer has used small, controlled, stop-and-go movements to create characters of astonishing dimension. With just a raise of his eyebrows or a twist of his torso, he can conjure up the most profound of human emotions: sorrow, passion, despair. He's done so onstage in any number of small-scale performances, many of them solo.

Now Wamer is ready to leave small behind and take on large. In this weekend's show, MYTHOS: Journey Toward What End?, the cast is big (32 performers); the list of collaborators is long (Flam Chen, Odaiko Sonora, ZUZI! Dance Company, the UA School of Dance); and the themes are monumental.

"This show deals with large questions," Wamer says. "What if life exists beyond our planet? If it does, how does it impact our culture, our religion, our ethics?"

Drawing on mime, dance, drumming, singing, song, video and the circus arts, Wamer and his performers take on everything from life, death and the universe, to religion, myth and evolution.

In the "Evolution" section, the dancers become creatures evolving out of the primordial slime.

"They're head to foot in mesh leotards," Wamer reports. "They're creatures transforming from one thing to the next. They're amphibious creatures, toads, tadpoles, amoebas splitting."

In "Life in the Cosmos," aerialists from Flam Chen and trapeze dancers from ZUZI! cavort through a set that looks like a circus ring.

"It's a celebration. Love's at play in the universe. It's about Genesis/Eden/joy."

"Transit" has dancers walking atop Pilates balls, emulating the movement of globes across the universe. Though MYTHOS is partly about the Earth's ecosystem and humans' place in it as "interactive creatures," Wamer has long had his eye on the skies.

"I'm a backyard astronomer," he admits. And the vision of the stars twinkling across the black skies inclines him to think about other worlds, and mortality.

"We have an amazingly short life span, of 80 to 100 years," he says. "But we have the opportunity of being part of the creative force, of experiencing the cosmos as a nurturing, learning world. It's such a gift for us to have this short time."

MYTHOS ponders all these weighty themes, while breaking down the theater's proverbial fourth wall to give audience members an "opportunity to move out of their daily life."

The concert literally moves out of the theater, beginning on the lawn outside Stevie Eller Dance Theatre on the UA campus. Flam Chen stiltwalkers, without their usual lit torches ("no fire," Wamer declares), will parade around outside before leading the audience indoors in a procession.

The lobby will be filled with artwork and installations, by To-Ree-Mee Wolf McArdle, among others, dealing with the mythic themes of the show. When the audience gets into the theater at long last, they'll find the drummers of Odaiko Sonora already on stage, pounding out rhythmic compositions on their big Japanese drums. A video backdrop will be looping through images of a molecule metamorphosing, followed by hieroglyphs and alphabets and other symbol systems created by humans.

Wamer will perform an opening mime solo, as local opera singers Michaela Johnson and Allison Lasley sing "non-text-based vocal movements"--that is, sung syllables that are not words.

The story is a loose narrative, filled with references to cultures worldwide, from Egyptian to Yaqui. UA dance grad student Nathan Cottam takes on the part of The Revealer, an everyman who leads the audience on the Mythos journey, from evolution to devolution, and from light to dark. Eventually, he meets up with a goddess figure, played by Katie Rutterer, a fellow UA dance grad student and frequent dancer with Thom Lewis and with NEW ART.

They do a "beautiful ballet duet," Wamer says, but they end up "in a dark place, a funeral dirge." A final mime solo, by Lorie Heald, Wamer's professional and life partner, winds through assorted creation myths to "bring us back to a center of light."

The meanings are open-ended, Wamer says, something the theatergoers figure out for themselves.

"I have no control of what audience members bring to the performance. It's a discourse among the audience members and the artists."

MYTHOS serves as Wamer's master's project for his MFA from the UA School of Dance. It's a far more ambitious work than the usual grad-student fare, so much so that he's been working on parts of it for 2 1/2 years. It's also been costly, and right now, he's "flat-out broke." He's grateful for the free tuition at the UA throughout his master's program, he says, so he doesn't mind having poured so much of his own money into the show. And he did get some university money for the concert, through Steward Observatory, via a grant intended to fund multidisciplinary projects in "astrobiology in religion and in the arts."

Wamer's delighted that he's been able to pull off the collaboration between the university and artists in the community, a feat he hopes to duplicate in coming years with his Theatrical Mime Theatre.

"I'm thrilled to see it all come together," he says.

Though Wamer put together the blueprint for the show, the directors of the local arts troupes, including Karen Falkenstrom and Rome Hamner of Odaiko Sonora, and Nanette Robinson of ZUZI!, all composed pieces of MYTHOS.

"I see myself as the facilitator," Wamer says. "And see how the choices pan out in the end. It's just about creating the event and the experience, and reflecting on it later.

"What the show actually looks like is nothing like what I had in my brain. That's the coolest thing about it."

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