At a recent practice for PUSH Physical Theatre, Tom Ohl and Topher Holt made handstand pushups look like routine jumping jacks. Gravity never weighs PUSH performers down; the five-person troupe relies on it to carve an imaginary world out of the air around them.
"There should be a sense for the audience that the air is almost thicker up on the stage," says Darren Stevenson, who co-founded PUSH with his wife Heather. "When I move through it I leave something tangible behind me."
Building off this illusion, PUSH draws you into its world with daring lifts and acrobatics, slow-motion mime, and irresistible characters. The Stevensons started their company in 1993, and changed the name to PUSH in 2000 after deciding to move from Atlanta to Rochester to grow their concept. They see themselves as pushing the boundaries of classical theater.
Stevenson looks for versatility in his performers rather than classical training. Ohl and Holt were former high-school athletes with little dance experience before an apprenticeship with PUSH in the summer of 2002. But they had the qualities Stevenson looks for --- what he defines as the body of a gymnast, the mind of an actor, and the heart of a poet --- and he asked both men and Holt's wife, Heather, to join the company.
PUSH conveys powerful messages about friendship, trust, and spirituality --- all without feeling heavy-handed. After changing costumes at a recent performance, Darren Stevenson returned to introduce the next piece in a black tank top and tights. "We're back again, different clothes," he said, "a little tighter in the pants."
The troupe credits acts like Cirque Du Soleil and the Blue Man Group for inspiration, but says the closest comparison is the critically acclaimed Pilobolus, a six-person company that has broken ground with its non-traditional partnering. Stevenson chooses physical theater because it can express some concepts --- like trust --- better than words. Nevertheless, he recognizes physical spectacles have limits, so PUSH tells stories with each performance.
"I don't want to leave people scratching their heads," he says. "That's why people hate artists."
In "Jonathan and David," an allusion to the Biblical tale about two soldiers closer than brothers, the audience sees an intimacy rarely depicted in a male friendship. Amidst embraces and fisticuffs, Stevenson and Ohl pull off moves requiring strength, patience, and trust. While Ohl lies on his back, Stevenson faces him and places his hands on Ohl's bent knees. Ohl then braces his partner's shoulders so Stevenson can slowly raise his legs into a handstand.
PUSH performs throughout the United States, and has recently gained more national exposure. The airport network, which televises in airport terminals across the United States, bought footage of PUSH from a WXXI documentary that PBS aired nationally this winter. Yet PUSH still wants to build its foundation in Rochester, a place where Darren Stevenson says he doesn't get funny looks when he says he's a dancer.
Although Darren says PUSH's unique physical theater can be difficult to market, a recent performance at PenfieldHigh School confirmed the company's appeal. In a piece called "The Mask," Holt rearranges his face from a plastered smile to a twisted grimace under the disguise's power. The originally skeptical teenagers howled as the other characters tried to yank the imaginary mask off his face.
After the performance, several teens met PUSH members and one mother thanked Holt for talking to her son. She said her boy was almost too star-struck to speak to him.
PUSH is debuting a piece called "Goodbye" on Sunday, May 15, at NewSong church, which meets in Building 4 on the Monroe Community College campus, 1000 East Henrietta Road, at 10:30 a.m. Free. www.pushtheatre.org