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Whatever happens, it's a towering achievement

Trey Knight wants to take movement to new heights with 'Stilt World: A Glimpse Into Unexpected Realities.'

August 28, 2004|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

Stilt-dancing may sound like a novelty act -- big clown feet and stovepipe hats -- but it's serious art to choreographer-performer Trey Knight and the other dancers who are moving within the oval of a deserted Northridge skating rink, executing plies, pirouettes, split kicks and jetes with strangely elongated legs.

They are rehearsing Knight's new dance-theater piece, "Stilt World: A Glimpse Into Unexpected Realities," which will debut Sunday at the Henry Fonda Music Box Theatre in Hollywood.

The evening, to be presented with cabaret seating and hosted by sultry Hollywood diva-about-town Morganne, will feature not only dancers on stilts but giant balloons, fire twirling and torches, roller skaters, aerialists, contortionists, singers, musicians and Knight's fantastical costume designs.

It will be, by his lights, "a manifestation of the dreamtime -- intense, whimsical, hot and sexy, a collision of artistry and drama, absolute technique and fearlessness."

Muscular, dark-haired and seemingly indefatigable, the 33-year-old Knight is a dancer, circus aerialist and former national and international competitive artistic roller skater who has performed in such films as "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and this year's "A Cinderella Story" and in Cirque du Soleil's TV series, "Solstrom."

With missionary zeal, he says his goal is to translate his varied professional experience into what he calls "a whole new language of movement on stilts," with roots in a centuries-old form of artistic and ritualistic expression.

At the rink, he stops to block a scene and the dancers watch, balanced on high, their heads, like his, only a few feet from the ceiling. When the music starts up again, they move in unison to a driving Latin beat, not stumping back and forth like circus funnymen but fluidly, from the hips, their black Lycra-clad legs tapering down to narrow pegs.

That motion and the dancers' extreme height -- Knight on stilts is nearly 9 feet tall -- has a transforming effect, as if these men and women in motley rehearsal clothes have made an otherworldly shift in reality.

(The illusion is prosaically dispelled when one dancer, Di Koob, takes a spill. Unfazed, she's hauled back up by two colleagues.)

"Stilt World," whose cast will number 25 in all, begins with a woman's journey through a fraught landscape inspired by Knight's interest in what's known as lucid dreaming, when the dreamer knows he's in a dream world. At first broken into segments with such foreboding titles as "Bleeding," "Burns," "Dread" and "Miss Phantom," the piece then segues into something lighter -- "a contemporary version of Berlin cabaret," the choreographer says, "draggish and playful."

He explains that "Stilt World" was born in workshops he held in May for industry dancers and others, many of whom had never been on stilts before. Coaxing these dancers into shoes bolted to 2-by-2 wooden poles, whose compass-like peg ends are "almost like ballet pointe shoes," was the first hurdle.

"Dancing is their livelihood, so for them to do this raises a lot of risk," he says. "I only made their stilts 2 feet tall, and I got a ballet barre that was high enough to hold onto. We used mats and padding, and I taught them how to fall. We fell every time they came in, to delete as much fear as possible."

Jazz and belly dancer Stevie McKinley, 22, recalls her first such tumble as a relief: "It was 'Oh, OK. That's over and it wasn't so bad.' "

Her "Stilt World" gig "may not be the smartest move for a dancer," McKinley acknowledges, "but it was too exciting to pass up."

The performers are variously trained in ballet, modern, Middle Eastern, hip-hop and other dance forms. Some are gymnasts and martial artists.

"The trick," Knight says, "is to hold onto your technique and find new ways to move with the change in momentum and gravity. It changes your whole peripheral vision, your sense of boundary in space."

Modern and hip-hop dancer Jose Cueva, 26, who performs as a "tribal dancer" in the piece, says the challenge wasn't too daunting: "As a dancer, you know your body and you just start adapting."

"If you're a flexible trained dancer," Knight adds, "you can play with the off-center gravity pull and it becomes a new form that frees you in so many ways.

"It's been really exciting, working with these amazing, fierce dancers. What they're doing with these long legs is really beautiful."


'Stilt World'


Where: Henry Fonda Music Box Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Doors open 7 p.m.; show, 8 p.m. Sunday

Price: Cabaret seating, $50 and $75; general seating, $20 and $30


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