Spinning, the two velveted acrobats twist up and around a spiraled metal ladder. As they arch upside down, they cradle huge metal spheres, banging them onto harplike strings beneath them as they circle. The music is ethereal, the vision mesmerizing.
And the acrobats? They’re Leah Mann and Ela Lamblin, two Vashon circus artists collectively known as Lelavision who combine hard science with music and dance at festivals and schools from Edinburgh to Australia. The Lelavision duo also play on their enormous metal musical sculptures at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass every Thanksgiving, and this week they’re back there in the Hot Shop to create a new instrument out of glass.
“It’s a grand multitasking performance – we animate the sculptures, we dance – it keeps us alert and creative,” says Mann, of the performances she and husband Lamblin have been doing for about 16 years. “But then, sometimes we show up on stage going, ‘How on earth do we do this?’”
If Lelavision – a name constructed from both first names, and a reference to the Sanskrit ‘lila’ or ‘play’ – are ever uncertain onstage, it’s not obvious to the audience, who watch performances with eyes agog. The duo bring something different every year, but it always involves enormous metal sculptures that play music and that can be ridden, hung on or spun around like giant versions of the Kompan play equipment in Tacoma parks.
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Inside Mann and Lamblin’s Vashon studio, all those giant musical toys are stacked in corners, waiting for the next show. In one corner is a set of tubular bells encircling a steel platform on a pole some 6 feet high. (“I have to do a back pullover to get up there,” explains Mann.) Behind it is a kind of marimba made of individual wooden bars set over aluminum spheres, sounding like a xylophone married to a steel drum. In another corner there’s a volcano-shaped cone on wheels, big enough for two people to poke their heads out of to play the perimeter’s steel strings with cello bows.
There are tambours, drums, a metal bird made out of a bicycle seat, and a dinosaur made of Styrofoam packaging hanging from the ceiling. There’s the twisty spiral with the harp strings, a weird gadget that looks like a hand-cranked film projector, and a wall full of multimedia equipment. There’s also a whole corner devoted to metalworking tools.
“I learned violin and guitar as a kid, and my dad had this big collection of exotic instruments,” says Lamblin, who’s the duo’s engineer. “Then in college I studied sculpture, and began inventing my own musical instruments.” The kind of man who can build almost anything, including the couple’s own metal-sided house and studio, the 37-year-old Lamblin is tall and lean, with long brown hair in a ponytail and a calm face. He met Mann in 1993 during their college years in Atlanta, where she was studying dance.
“I had car trouble one day, and when Ela looked under he found a hole in the muffler,” remembers Mann, 45, dark-haired and freckled with a petite, muscular frame. “So he picked up a spare jar lid in the kitchen and welded it to fix the hole. That’s when I thought, ‘This is the man for me.’”
Since then, Mann and Lamblin haven’t looked back. Combining his mechanical, musical and sculptural abilities, along with a love of metal, with her choreographic and gymnastic training (she keeps a trapeze rope and aerial fabric hung in the living room, to keep in shape), they formed a duo which has performed around the world at festivals, Cirque du Soleil gigs and theater shows. Lamblin also studied classical Indian music, and his performance compositions and solo CD make use of that haunting sound.
The two also give workshops in schools wherever they go, teaching creativity, math and physics with recycled materials (the Styrosaurus was one such project), and a kind of “brain yoga” in nursing homes incorporating movement and music. They’ve just come back from a volunteer trip in Guatemala teaching families how to make useful things out of stuff otherwise headed for landfills, and coming up on the calendar are festivals in Chicago; Eugene, Ore.; Tasmania; and Australia, as well as Seattle’s Moisture Festival.
But perhaps the most unexpected thing about Lelavision is their passion for science. Yes, hard science, the cutting-edge kind presented at serious conferences. Collaborating with top scientists in a variety of fields, Lelavision creates imaginative visual references to new discoveries, performing alongside the scientist who reads his or her paper aloud.
The tubular bell platform, for instance – called the Stamenphone – was inspired by the work of biologist Anna Edlund, and illustrated pollination by visually unfolding the metal bells and dispersing glitter from them. The twisty spiral on a metal petri dish – “Warm Pond” – is an allusion to the DNA helix, and was a collaboration with biochemist David Lynn at the Seattle International Film Festival. The Styrosaurus was used with a paper on ballistics. And Lamblin’s most recent creation – the cranking film projector – is actually a prototype of an instrument he calls the G-nome-phone, designed to illuminate recent work on epigenetics (a kind of meta-genetic theory) by Arri Eisen.
It’s this instrument that Lelavision is planning to work on this week at the Museum of Glass. Currently, the structure sounds by hand-cranking a wheel which turns a skateboard wheel rubbing against the tuned wooden frame, producing a sound like the low moan of a dijgeridoo, that low-pitched wind instrument of indigenous Australians. The sound is amplified by a resonating sphere of metal. But this week, Lamblin hopes to work with MOG’s Hot Shop team to create one made of glass, with a light bulb inside to flicker on and off with the randomness of molecular switches in gene theory.
“It’ll only vibrate with the air, not directly,” explains Lamblin, who also studied physics at college. “Otherwise it would break, of course.” In fact, despite his fascination with glass, it’s the fragility that’s kept the sculptor away from the material until now, when MOG staff – impressed by their work over the years – invited the duo to come as visiting artists.
After the instrument is made, and possibly multiplied, Lamblin and Mann will take their usual year or two to create a performance: “We improvise with it, find what works kinetically and musically, then form the piece,” says Lamblin.
South Sounders can expect to see a first version at the Lelavision MOG performance this Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, Lelavision will keep building, keep tumbling and climbing, and keep playing, along with their 2-year-old daughter.
“It’s nice – we’re not a nonprofit, just two people with a low overhead,” says Mann. “We feel very lucky to be able to walk out our door and do this.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
What: Lelavision, visiting artists at Hot Shop
Where: Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St., Tacoma
When: 10 a.m.-1 p.m., 2-5 p.m. March 10-13, noon-5 p.m. March 14; artist conversation 2 p.m. March 14
Admission: $12/$10/$5/free for under 6
Information: 866-4-MUSEUM, www.museumofglass.org
What: Lelavision in performance
WHO: Moisture Festival; other acts include trapeze, circus, clowning, etc.
When: 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. March 14
Where: The Falls Theatre at ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle
And also: 7:30 p.m. March 26, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. March 27
Where: Vashon Open Space, 18870 103rd Ave. SW, Vashon
Tickets: $20 adults/$10 children