‘Atomic City,’ Acrobatic Physical Theater Piece, to Debut at La MaMa


Workshop of Atomic City at Watermill Center. Jumping: Jens.
Workshop of Atomic City at Watermill Center. Jumping: Jens Backvall

and Runa Kaiser. Photo by Tom Kotchie.

Living surrounded by secrets is a weird existence. Ask any resident of Oak Ridge, TN, the city established in the early 1940s as a base for the Manhattan Project. The parents of writer/performer Jon Morris (“Fuerzabruta,” Cirque du Soleil, Theatre de la Jeune Lune) moved there and he was born there. The city’s history and its culture of secrecy were inspiration for “Atomic City,” which will be presented by New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theater September 11 to 28, 2008. “Atomic City” is an international interdisciplinary theatre collaboration between Morris and the Danish physical theatre company Terra Nova (www.t-nova.org) and features award winning actors, dancers and musicians from the US, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Guatemala.

Morris is intrigued by the community of Oak Ridge that surrounded his parents. Jens Backvall, head of Terra Nova, is intrigued, like most Scandinavians, with the physicist Niels Bohr, one of the pacifist scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. The project that emerged from their collaboration is a physical theater work that fantasizes the lives of Bohr’s family and a family next door, living within a secret city where trivial issues are grotesquely exaggerated to become monumental conflicts. The story is told with original live music, euro crash dance, magical realism text, acrobatics and a living wall designed by Molo (like the one in the permanent collection of MOMA). “Atomic City” was created in part at LaMaMa E.T.C. and Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center.

Niels Bohr, Atomic City, a tragic comedy of two families who live in a secret city surrounded by a great wall on opposite sides of a fence.
Niels Bohr

The artists define their stage-language as Interactive Choreographic Theatre, where different art forms do not stand alone but fuse to create the world of the play. Dance, theatre, video, text, and acrobatics all intertwine to tell the story.

The piece was conceived by Jens Backvall (DK) and Jon Morris (USA), who met in 1999 as students of Nata Raja, a Balinese dance studio. At the time, Morris was in Cirque de Soleil, touring Copenhagen. Backvall and his girlfriend, Mette Goldberg, were heads of Terra Nova, a Danish company specializing in interactive and physical theater. The germ of the idea was planted then and was nurtured by Skype conversations thereafter. In the past year, the piece has been workshopped at La MaMa and at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center.

Photo of Jon Morris from his website
Photo of Jon Morris from his website

Original music is composed and performed by Tobias Sonden (Cello, Guitar, Percussion) and Nis Backvall (Barritone & Soprano Saxophone/Percussion). Jon Morris describes it as “sort of Indy Rock meets Swedish Folk Music, similar to Animal Collective and Andrew Bird.”

The script is written by the performance ensemble. Anson Mount (USA) is Dramaturg. “Outside eyes” are Christoph Schletz (Germany) and Mette Guldborg Hansen (Denmark).

Light/video/graphic designer is Felix Grimm (Germany). Costume Designer is Lejka Seivert (USA/Denmark). Scenic Installation is by Christian Wassman (Germany). The performers are Jens Backvall (Denmark), Jon Morris (USA), Karl Sorensen (Denmark), Nis Backvall (Sweden), Runa Kaiser, (Denmark), Sayda Trujillo (Guatemala) and Tobias Sonden (Sweden).

Jon Morris, concept/performer, currently stars in the Off-Broadway hit “Fuerzabruta” at the Daryl Roth Theatre. He has created and performed with Cirque du Soleil, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Diavolo, Orphean Circus, Spymonkey, Guthrie Theatre, La MaMa and Philippe Gualier. In 1999 he was a Thomas J. Watson Fellow (England, France, Bali, India) and in 2002, a Tennessee Williams Fellow. He is a six-time All-American Springboard Diver and earned his B.A. from the University of the South/Michael Howard Studios. His last La MaMa appearance was as Hanuman, the white monkey, in “Ramayana 2K3,” which was nominated for five Drama Desk awards. (www.jonmorris.biz)

Jens Backvall, concept/performer.
Jens Backvall

“Atomic City” will debut September 11 to 28 at La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex Theater), 74A East Fourth Street. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm plus Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $25; $20 seniors and students and can be purchased by calling the box office at (212) 475-7710 or visiting www.lamama.org.