Arts and Entertainment

Island women share their 'sense'

Janet McAlpin, Leah Mann and Martha Enson rehearse for 50 Sense Circus. - Juli Goetz Morser
Janet McAlpin, Leah Mann and Martha Enson rehearse for 50 Sense Circus.
— image credit: Juli Goetz Morser

When island aerialists Martha Enson, Janet McAlpin and Leah Mann all turned 50 last year, they saw an opportunity.

While most performers who depend on their bodies to create their art retire in their 30s, these women had already beaten the odds and were ready to talk about it. Talk about it, that is, in their own language of physical storytelling, a tale they plan to tell in a new show called “50 Sense Circus.”

One week before the scheduled performances, these three vibrant women greet each other with energetic hugs in the light-filled, high-ceiling gym built by McAlpin and strewn with heaps of aerial harnesses and yoga mats, large colorful balls and a ladder that the women climb to clip into hanging bungee cords to rehearse their act.

These are veteran performers equally at ease upside down and hanging off each other’s arms or legs as they are assuming a yoga pigeon pose or arching in a backstretch across an exercise ball. These are women with finely tuned skills and, unlike their ingenue counterparts, have a combined count of 90 years of experience behind them, which in the words of Martha Enson means they’ve paid the price of admission, the admission to tell their own stories.

“It’s the accumulation of living that gives you something to say,” she said. “With the price of admission you get to admit who you are and not pretend, to be at home with that and the freedom it brings.”

Whether they paid the price or earned the right, there’s little doubt that these women have impressive dossiers to back them up.

As the artistic director of Enjoy Productions, Enson creates, designs and implements Enjoy’s public and private events. She became the first female performer/director of Teatro ZinZanni, co-founded UMO Ensemble and was founding producer of the Fringe Theater Festival.

An aerialist, actress, director, mask-maker, puppeteer, trainer and mother, Enson holds a master’s degree in fine arts from Connecticut’s National Theatre Institute and trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq, a physical theater school in Paris. She grew up in New York City and moved to Vashon in 1989.

McAlpin gave Vashon an enormous gift when she and David Godsey, in 1992, purchased the K2 warehouse, better known today as the Open Space for Arts & Community. As an aerialist and physical theater performer, McAlpin knew firsthand the island’s need for a large, flexible artist-centered space, and she made it happen.

Also trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq, McAlpin teaches and directs physical theater and has appeared as various characters in Teatro ZinZani, Cirque du Flambe and the Moisture Festival. As co-founder of UMO Ensemble, McAlpin conceived and directed UMO’s first full-length production and lovingly calls her son her clown mentor. She’s been an island resident since 1989.

Choreographer and co-director of Lelavision, Mann began her career as a competitive gymnast, then as a dancer and co-founder of Moving in the Spirit, an award-winning dance and urban outreach program. In 1992, she began collaborating with Ela Lamblin using original kinetic sculpture, live music and dance simultaneously in a performance, creating a new genre called physical music.

Mann’s passion for kinetic, spatial and multi-sensory expression led her to co-found Integrated Music, which brings musicians to bedsides in a Seattle hospital and to instruct restorative movement to Alzheimer patients at community care centers. She facilitates personal development retreats and teaches youth movement. Mann moved to Vashon in 2004.

In response to their milestone birthdays, these three creative athletes inventoried their stories, skipping the midlife crises, to produce a midlife circus of “50 Sense.”

“Everyone gives their two cents,” Enson said. “Now that we’ve turned 50, this is our two cents times 50.”

Under the direction of Seattle performing artist Tina La Padula, who along with Seattle dancer Sumayya Diop performs with the three women, the show will open with the Oracles, characters who are based on the women’s grandmothers.

“We start with our roots,” McAlpin said. “Then the show moves through us as we grow and let go of the past, with permission to be who we are today.”

“That letting go,” added Mann with a bemused twinkle in her brown eyes, “is a real moment of letting go,” which fits for a hybrid theatrical circus featuring daring triple trapeze acts with intricate falls on aerial silk, dervish Spanish web spinning and “banshee-like bungeeing” plus eye-catching sideshow acts of strip tease, feats on roller skates, an accordion extravaganza, oracle conjuring and spoken word by poet Storme Webber.

Told through what the women call sneaky deep comedy and visual poetry, the show ultimately weaves together the many threads of their lives affected by the vicissitudes of life — birth and death, abundance and scarcity, fear and courage — into the fabric of their final act “Admit It.”

Each woman chimes in with a one-line slogan to describe the gist of that last act, “You get to admit who you are. You have permission to be who you are. You are good just as you are.”

And somewhere within the show, some of these words will find their way onto the skin of these daring women on the bouncing bungees who will fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

“50 Sense Circus” will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19, at the Open Space for Arts & Community. Doors will open 30 minutes before the show for live interactive sculpture. Tickets are available at the Vashon Bookshop or Proceeds from the door will be donated to two nonprofit organizations, the DoVe Project and Eve Ensler’s 1 Billion Rising Project.

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