Fun With Gravity 

click to enlarge “The Great American Backyard” physical theater performance - SARAH MCALEXANDER
  • Sarah McAlexander
  • “The Great American Backyard” physical theater performance

Although she takes the work seriously, aerialist and instructor Val Russell thinks her new title is funny. "I'm an ambassador," she says, letting the word roll around in her mouth. "I'm an ambassador for GPAC [Germantown Performing Arts Center], and I'm putting together a really playful show that is supposed to help Memphis audiences learn about physical theater."

"Physical theater" is the term Russell uses to describe a fusion of dance, design, and various gravity-defying disciplines with circus roots. Russell thinks it's been difficult to attract Memphis audiences to performances by pioneering companies like Streb and Pilobolus in part because Memphis has never had its own physical theater company.

"We are that company," Russell says. "In marketing meetings, I hear it all the time: We can sell Lyle Lovett because people know what that is. My job is to help educate people about physical theater."

click to enlarge “The Great American Backyard” physical theater performance - MARY LONG
  • Mary Long
  • “The Great American Backyard” physical theater performance

The "playful little show" Russell's dancers and aerialists are developing for GPAC is called "The Great American Backyard," an impressionistic take on family life and outdoor playtime. The performances collected for "American Backyard" are a physical response to a variety of physical structures including one called "Steely," that looks like a cross between monkey bars and a roller coaster.

"We had hoped to rehearse on Steely in the lobby at GPAC," Russell says. "But it's too big. We couldn't figure out how to get it in the lobby."

So where does the new company in town find its talent?

"They come to us," Russell says. "We get gymnasts and dancers, and a lot of ballerinas who want to break out of the bun. Ballerinas are already jumpers. I think they're looking for some way to get even higher."

"The Great American Backyard" at Germantown Performing Arts Center Friday, February 28th, at 7 p.m.

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