Body wisdom

If the unlikely pairing of weird, oversized musical instruments with wild trapeze dances brings to mind a riot of fun-but-ultimately-meaningless activity — think again: The Lela Performance Group uses just those elements (and more) to access what they call “the body’s wisdom.”

Through the sheer physicality of their performance of Body Soul Food, Leah Mann and Ela Lamblin (a.k.a. the Lela Performance Group) offer a combination of dance, theater, music and improvisational play that’s designed to awaken the mind by startling the senses.

Mann is a former competitive gymnast whose dances have been known to take place while she swings on bungee cords or cavorts on a 15-foot musical trapeze/swing. Lamblin, meanwhile, accompanies Mann’s contortions on his outsized, outrageous musical sculptures — which include a kelp saxophone and a 6-foot harmonic Stamenphone made of piano wire and salad bowls. (And let’s not forget his “kitchen sink” series of instruments, offering a Roald Dahl-esque selection of broccoli pennywhistles, yogurt-container qweekas, butter-knife pianos and apple ocarinas, all of which he invites the audience to try.) Lamblin’s work is featured on a CD compilation of musical inventors called Orbitones (Ellipsis Arts, 1998), which also showcases the likes of Tom Waits, Stomp and John Cage.

Lamblin’s unusual life-path was inspired by his father, who told his son at age 6 that, although he would never buy him any toys, he was willing to help the boy make any playthings he wanted. That spirit of thoughtful play is what fuels the Seattle-based Lela Performance Group today.

Audience involvement plays a crucial role in Lela’s repertoire. “In ‘DT-3,’ a body/wisdom piece, I’ll lead the audience through a guided visualization to gather [their] body data,” Mann explains, without a trace of self-consciousness about the decidedly New Age lingo. “Someone will say ‘hot face,’ or ‘sore neck,’ or ‘numb legs,’ and I’ll notice that sensation in my own body and dance the dance. … From that, I’ll do body/wisdom stories, which are moving physical pieces that use body information.”

Mann employs a patented 20-year-old method called InterPlay in her performances and workshops. The technique, which encourages a melding of mind, body and spirit through movement and improvisation, can be used to develop a lighthearted feel in her performances — or to unearth more intense issues her therapeutic workshops.

“The performance is interactive, meant for people to ‘play’ improvisationally; there’s not a lot of internal work,” she relates. “In a workshop, I would ask people to meditate on a particular theme: fulfillment or personal growth.”

In both capacities, the dancer is required to make unlikely bedfellows of choreography and spontaneity.

“There are a lot of rehearsals,” she relates. “My partner choreograph[s] every set with the musical sculpture. … Some pieces are highly structured, pieces where I’ll be inviting people up [onstage]. And in … InterPlay, [there are] set parameters and guidelines, and you work within that.”

But the different personalities she adopts onstage often exhibit unpredictable lives of their own.

“One character I have, Miss Diagnosis … I’ve been practicing her, but once she gets in front of people, it’s sort of off the cuff. I never know what she’ll say,” confesses Mann.

Though performances are geared toward audience participation, it’s never her goal to embarrass anyone, the dancer stresses: “I would never call on someone that wasn’t [emotionally] available to participate.”

Those attending InterPlay workshops, however, are expected to communicate their feelings — and the benefits they reap may be unexpected, the dancer maintains.

“It’s a pleasant way to bring out deep information,” she says, somewhat dreamily. “[InterPlay] blends the … therapeutic, the physical and the spiritual, and melds the integrity of all these things. I find it personally beautiful. That’s why I share it.”

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