Deservedly or not, St. Paul is considered the quieter of the Twin Cities. History tells us, however, that the town once known as "Pig's Eye" boasts an unruly past. The former haven for gangsters on the lam and various tawdry business enterprises offers up rich inspiration for a fun-filled roving performance tour courtesy of Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum, presented by Park Square Theatre.
"Passing Through Pig's Eye," which opened Saturday night, is built on the framework of a school field trip with two story lines to choose from (you sign up before curtain). Some scenes make specific historic references (Park Square, for example, used to be a bowling alley) while others are more abstract, capturing moods rather than specific moments in time.
What's consistent, however, is a great, and sometimes loopy, affection for the city at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers.
Chvala is an innovator in percussive dance and a consummate showman. The opening scenes of "Passing" reflect on the stylish Speakeasy scene of the 1920s, with dancers reveling in Charleston high kicks and high-energy hoofing. Galen Higgins, in particular, wows with precise timing and pure joy of movement.
He, along with several other collaborators including Rush Benson, Jeremy Bensussan, Annie Enneking, Brian J. Evans, Karla Grotting, Kaleena Miller, Natalie Nowytski, Peter O'Gorman and Darrius Strong joined Chvala in creating the choreography and sound.
"Passing" unfolds throughout Park Square's space under the Hamm Building as well as in the Landmark Center courtroom across the street and on the bricks of West 7th Place, the site of 16 vaudeville houses back in the day. It's delightful to follow a dancer/flapper strumming a ukulele over the crosswalks and to reconsider some of the structures taken for granted during the daily grind.
The evening does run long, though, and could use some editing toward the end, when audience attention starts to wander from the journey.
Other highlights of "Passing" include Grotting's collaboration with old-time string musician Adam Kiesling for a melancholy glimpse into St. Paul's working-class roots. And then there's the uproarious partnership of Benson and Evans. Portraying mischievous students through hilarious and virtuosic physicality, the duo won everyone's affection. St. Paul is their playground, and somewhere the ghost of one-eyed bootlegger Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant, the city's earliest settler, is laughing.
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.