Monsters are feared, but their back-stories can reveal reasons for compassion. Take Medusa from Greek mythology. Before a curse transformed her into a Gorgon with snakes for hair and the ability to turn people to stone, she was a devotee of the goddess Athena. Her journey into darkness inspired "Medusa," a mystical outdoor show performed Thursday night at Boom Island Park in northeast Minneapolis.
A hit at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival, the work is a collaboration of artistic directors Kristin Freya of Vox Medusa and Rah Diavola of Infiammati FireCircus. It combines dance and song (lyrics in Latin by Emily Colay) with fiery spectacle, including flames burning on wrought iron pieces symbolizing everything from the moon to weaponry. A slashing whip, set ablaze, prompted "oohs" and a simultaneous recoil by the audience.
The strengths of "Medusa" are in its atmosphere and passion. Set along the Mississippi, with the glittering cityscape as backdrop, the location functioned as a portal into an enchanted time. When the performers emerged from behind a screen (which video artist Tony Biele used for surreal projections), it was easy to imagine them as inhabitants of the park, summoned from the trees onto the natural stage. Singers Nicole Collins (Athena) and Colay (Medusa) projected their powerful voices into the night, accompanied by dreamlike music from composers Jeremy Christensen and Dylan Nau.
Medusa's story reminds us of the humanity within the monster as well as the individual drive for survival despite adversity. Poseidon raped the celibate priestess, and Athena doomed her to life as a pariah. Medusa became a killer, but it's possible to still end up rooting for her — especially as warriors, specifically Perseus, sought her head as a gruesome prize.
Colay's lyrics remind us of the anti-heroine's lament: "They have no idea of the cruelty I have endured."
The dancers functioned as a Greek chorus, more focused on unity than complexity (appropriate for an outdoor venue), their gestures hinting at early 20th-century modern dancer Isadora Duncan's classical style. Julie Marie Muskat portrayed Medusa and also contributed choreography. As her character's isolation deepened, Muskat projected full-body despair without becoming overly dramatic.
"Medusa" wouldn't have the same impact indoors, which is a positive testament to the collaborators. There is a special art to site-specific performance, and "Medusa" comes alive because of it.
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.