Dancing birds trickled out onto the chalk-sketched stage at an announcement from a moonlit man in a suspended cage. The largely uncostumed performers swirled and wove benignly around a glowing tree. They were happily at home, swelling and ebbing on mellow music until a congress of ravens descended in a storm—rippling the locals’ ranks and heightening the stakes. Their raven-lord lurched down from atop an unskinned hydraulic tower, flanked by wing-flapping henchmen. The resident birds, briefly cowed, now soared into a choreographed assault.
The music suddenly cut out. Redmoon Theater Artistic Director Frank Maugeri stepped forward. “What you’re trying to do is protect the tree!” He was having trouble detecting the coming battle’s objective; the desperate holding action was still too fuzzily articulated. He gestured out a sharper vision—explaining what the audience ought to see after two-and-a-half weeks of rehearsals, when Redmoon’s fifty-minute, forty-performer, three-director “Winter Pageant” spectacle show went up. Conceived to comfortably include multiple dance groups from both North and South sides, replete with a surf-rock band, stilts, and massive machinery—sleight-of-hand, fast-roping monkey-men, and elaborate shadow-puppetry—this first rehearsal could only possibly grapple with the spectacle’s opening act. “You crack the code in the first ten minutes,” said Maugeri, “you crack the show.”
The performers adapted their routines, developing a defense on the fly, molding a new scene from what they had previously prepared. Hip-hop dancers from the Happiness Club caucused briefly, mulling over their repertoire. The lead dancers from the Indian and the Indonesian outfits paired off momentarily, playing new ideas against the other as if into responsive, sympathetic mirrors. According to Maugeri there’s no script. “We just start with bullet points.” From those initial sketches, the various partnering artists each develop their own, considerably disparate material. Seasoned stagehands and community volunteers turn out to populate Redmoon’s Pilsen warehouse-theater with works-in-progress. Redmoon attempts to meaningfully fuse everything together through rapid collaboration and revision. “It’s a fast process with a lot of people,” Maugeri said.
The music resumed, at this point cued largely from a sound-suite but occasionally supplemented by the audio tech’s electric guitar. The Southeast Asian dancers united, checking the raven-lord’s advance as one, synchronized phalanx, palms clasped in low, offended bows. Their leader rose upwards to meet the raven-lord, but he planted his staff and brushed her away with his free arm’s slow, broad sweep. His second lashed out, shooing the stragglers like so many sparrows. Her flailing black ribbon licked their twirling flight’s general arc. The raven-lord now menaced the Happiness Club, their measured locking and popping evoking a dance-off’s itching militancy. He dispersed them as easily, blowing them back and apparently off balance. The raven-lord rounded on the tree, not expecting that the leader from the first group had recovered and stood in his path.
“We need to establish this!” said Maugeri, shadowing the action. He talked through the raven-lord’s unvoiced thoughts, circling him widely: “I came for the tree, but this one—she is pesky!” Today seemed to be Maugeri’s day, and he spent much of it on his feet, marshaling the diverse cast into a narrative unit. “My job is to look at the bigger spectacle,” he said. “Does that stage picture tell the story?” The Indian leader-bird summoned her final strength as the raven-lord’s second pressed her into a duel. The latter snaked her coils counterclockwise to the former’s rotation, containing the lone defender’s last stand. Having sidelined all those who depended on the tree, the raven-lord drained its vital light to triumphant rock riffs, tramping away stage left, laughing.
Small changes and innovations continued to accrue as the rehearsal marched further into the show. Does the hydraulic boom really contribute anything theatrically? Is it more logical for the raven-lord or his second to lurk over a forest sequence, clinging to an oversized gramophone upstage? Just how creepily touchy should the forest’s pointy-fingered tree-people become?
“We do a big glaze of a moment,” explained Maugeri, “and chop away until we have a scene.” The rehearsal was aptly sculptural. Beginning with a slab of ideas, the cast chiseled the concepts down. They chipped the action at individual breaking points, taking the birds’ initial, territorial antagonism and honing it into a fight for home, a war against the darkness, defeat in detail. Redmoon’s “Winter Pageant” began to resemble its constituent flocks—a colorful aggregation, variably absorbing and expelling elements, accepting those changes with relatively unruffled feathers.