“2010 wouldn’t be complete without the Art 21 world knowing about this mind-blowing show in a stock pavilion… I don’t know where to begin here, whether it was Deke Weaver’s humor, epic video productions or thoughtfully crafted dance and music by his collaborators, Jennifer Allen and Chris Peck. Weaver’s videos were stunning… Weaver’s style, a layering of live footage, stop-motion animation, projected text and monologue combine to create a sense that there is more to a story than what we see or hear… Allen’s ability to create subtle yet precise differentiations in the dancers’ gestures and formations was remarkable, virtuosic and gritty. The secret of ELEPHANT … is wrapped into a package of video, music, dance and narrative performance that is sensational, entertaining and humorous.”
Marissa Perel, Art 21 Blog
“In a way that only an artist can, Weaver repeatedly undermines the audience’s desire that what they are seeing represents, in the style of old natural-history television, ‘authenticated facts.’ Instead, the artist presents us with what he calls an ‘unreliable bestiary’ — a work which will reclaim a spiritual connection for animals while unmooring the human observer from a world of easily collated zoological facts and taxonomies. In this topsy-turvy slippery world, what we think we know about elephants is jumbled unevenly with science, whimsy, and farce to create an unsettling contemplation of the elephant as an animal we both might know better and will never know at all.”
Nigel Rothfels, “A Hero’s Death” (commentary on ELEPHANT, Animal Acts, co-edited by Una Chaudhuri and Holly Hughes)
ELEPHANT premiered in September 2010 at the University of Illinois Stock Pavilion, a cavernous arena chosen for its associations with 4-H Clubs, circuses, state fairs, and Roman amphitheatre battles. After September’s Urbana show, we were invited to present a carry-on version of the piece at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. The translation of the original performance was much smaller – a 10 foot by 24 foot stage and four people (Jennifer Allen, Jeff Kolar/Salt Lake City, Chris Peck, Valerie Oliveiro/Park City, and Weaver) instead of 50.
From living rooms to national park amphitheaters, beaches to barns; each Unreliable Bestiary performance is mounted in a unique setting, the site reflecting aspects of our faltering bonds with other living things and the natural world. The original ELEPHANT production (supported by Creative Capital, the University of Illinois’ Office of Public Engagement and part of the Center for Advanced Study’s 2010-11 series, Knowing Animals) featured video projected on two 90-foot long screens, an enormous elephant puppet and a sizable cast and crew. The piece was enormous (to capacity every night with over 1200 people attending), weird, haunting, deeply moving and one-of-a-kind.
ELEPHANT’s tales were culled from elephant fact and fiction: a circus performer’s letter, ecotourism, instruction manuals, 19th century colonial diaries, Siberian taboos and transnational economics. From burial rituals to subtle interpersonal communications to post-traumatic stress, elephant and human societies have remarkable similarities. With ivory poaching, the loss of habitat and the ever-increasing competition for resources, the future of the elephant is not bright. ELEPHANT’s quilt of stories is stitched around two main patches of fabric – the first about a circus elephant that met a tragic end in 1916 at Elkton, South Dakota, and the second about the training of mahouts, or elephant drivers. As part of research for the project, Jennifer Allen and I worked at a mahout training school in Thailand.
Some fantastically talented people built the show – choreographer and codirector Jennifer Allen, composer-musician Chris Peck, lighting designer Valerie Oliveiro, environmental designer and enormous Hero-the-elephant puppet-maker Andy Warfel, written, video, and directed by me, Deke Weaver. Featured performers included Aaron Austin, Gary Ambler, Jessica Cornish, Pamela Crews, David Hays, Joi Hofsommer, Jen Gibas, Kyli Kleven, Stephen May, Jeanine Meyer and a cast of thousands.
So many many many people worked on the show – Elina Kotlyar (stage manager), Grant Bowen (associate environmental designer/fabricator), Jeff Kolar (video tech), Josh Kaiser (assistant stage manager), David Swinford (board), Doug Pugh (sound one), Susan Becker and Rose Morefield (costumes), Amy Theobald (publicity), Doug Peterson (video/sound tech production), Damon Loren Baker (video tech design, digital advisor), Alex Mitchell, Bryan Shirk, and Stewart Dickson.
Hard working, inspired/inspiring student-artists worked on ELEPHANT. From building claymation models and circus tents, to follow-spot operators, to running 85 bales of hay in 50 yard sprints – amazing and generous work was done by Nicki Werner, Anna Peters, Emily Denis, Chris Hampson, Julia Pollack, Bill Fulara, Andrea Jennings, Hugh Sato, Jeanie Austin, Jovanny Varela, Ben Chase, Dan Krueger, Keri Quick, Hannah Altshuler, Alexis McLaughlin, Cara Siegel, Debra Walsh, Jack Kendall, Lauren Delaney, William Carlson, Walter Matherly, Jessica Tolbert, Kathryn Herbst, and others who I’ve spaced out, and many others who came in to run haybales for one or two nights or who spent an afternoon building claymation models with Nicki.
It was a beautiful show.