(Photo by Peter Atkins)

By Sheila Regan

Monkey Bar, the improvisational dance series put together by Non Edwards and Missa Kes, would be playing to packed houses if it were happening at Bedlam's former space on the West Bank. It's the kind of eccentric, out-of-the-ordinary event that used to make that space so special.

Unfortunately, at the ghost town that Bedlam's Lowertown space has become, Monkey Bar just attracts a small group of loyal followers.

Taking place on Sundays and Tuesdays through Feb. 2, the series has an un-self-conscious free play of experimentation. What it's missing is a more raucous energy that comes from a lively audience.

"It's hard to get people to Lowertown," says Edwards. What is wrong with the people that live in St. Paul?

Aside from the O'Shaughnessy (and to a lesser extant, The Ordway), which brings in big touring companies and Minnesota's larger dance companies, there's very few places to see independent choreographers and small dance companies perform in the city. It seems worlds away from the scene in Minneapolis, where nearly every week there's new work to discover in small theaters, bars, studios and even shopping malls.

It's too bad, because Monkey Bar has a lot of potential. Each performance, Edwards and Kes come up with a brand new show, with just the ritual beginning and closing segments repeated.

While there's a sliver of choreographed work in the show, most of Monkey Bar consists of improvised dance based off of scores made up of prompts that Edwards and Kes either create together or separately. A prompt might instruct the dancer to riff off the idea of an internal earthquake, or an evolving embryo, for example, says Edwards. They might specify a movement quality, or spacial structure. Sometimes these scores have been rehearsed, and sometimes not.

The performers display their score as a kind of set list of titles.

Written in chalk on a menu board, the titles remind them where they are in the show, and also give an idea to people watching something, however abstract, about the piece they're watching. For example, at one show, they listed different dishes on the menu. Where the hors d'oeuvre was, it said, "I want to fight a Polar Bear," and the soup was "Hard Hitting Journalism" -- a funny segment featuring Edwards as "Sherry Truth-bender" interviewing guest dancer Holo Lue Choy about her hopes and dreams as a dancer while the latter performer did a kind of soft-shoe number.

Because of this structure, the two choreographers say they have to learn how to memorize scores fast, and the cheat sheet menu is essential to reminding them where they are in the show. "I would be completely lost if I didn't have that," says Edwards.

While the crowds have been small, Kess and Edwards say that's not entirely a bad thing. "It's fun to have an intimate audience," Edwards says. "We played a one-on-one game with each audience member at one show."

Kes and Edwards each have done solo shows, where the entire hour-long performance was performed by one of the dancers. They've also done "Rogue Karaoke", complete with a magic show. They have more guest performers in the works, including Theresa Madaus on Tuesday, Jan. 12, and Laura Levinson, Alys Ayumi Ogura and Crissy Tolson on Sunday, Jan. 17.

It's the kind of show that could be super rowdy and fun. They just need more people to show up.

(7 p.m. Tue., 5 p.m. Sun. through Feb. 2, Bedlam Lowertown, 213 E. 4th St., St. Paul, Free, bedlamtheatre.org.)