The tree that rises through stories of Clifton's is always a site to behold. But when the Lucent Enchantment Society takes over the refurbished cafeteria/nightclub, it's near impossible to look away.
The Clifton's incarnation of performance company Lucent Dossier, Lucent Enchantment Society opened its residency at the venerable downtown establishment in October with aerialists looking as though they stepped out of fairy tales and silent films. They rise through above the floor on a swing, inside a bird cage and from a crescent moon. They contort through bars and climb silks and ropes, all the while edging closer to audiences peering over the railings of two balcony levels. If the succession of aerial performances were all Lucent brought to Clifton's for its performances, it would be a spectacle, but there's more. You could look down and see flappers dancing near the base of the tree, or look up and notice a guy playing with a crystal ball near the edge of the balcony. If you're lucky, a performer might pull you into their world. If not, you simply observe the blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments.
On the night I attended, the show started before it was scheduled to do so. Earlier in the evening, with a crowd gathered in Clifton's cozy first level waiting for entrance to the bar zones, a woman with long, white-blond hair and long eyelashes stood above us with a look of distress on her face. Nearby, someone caught the Rapunzel reference and shouted, "Let down your hair!"
With Lucent, the party is the performance. Shows can take place anywhere and the players can be anyone. The company, founded by Dream Rockwell, took shape inside underground parties during the early 2000s. Its members toured with Panic! at the Disco, played Coachella and, by 2008, became the resident at the Edison, which landed Lucent in L.A. Weekly's People Issue the following year. Its ascent coincided with the rise of downtown. Since then, Lucent has performed across the globe with shows that have grown more elaborate. Earlier in 2016, the group collaborated with locals 3-D Live to build a 3-D LED show for a headlining performance in the Sahara tent at Coachella. Now, it's fitting that Lucent has reconnected with Andrew Meieran, the Edison owner who has since taken over Clifton's, for its Lucent Enchantment Society performances tailored to this unusual venue.
A few weeks after opening night, three Lucent performers stuck around Clifton's after a rehearsal to meet for an interview. (Rockwell herself was not present for this meeting.) We wandered through a hidden staircase before settling inside a small lobby outside of the newly opened Pacific Seas tiki bar on an upper level of the labyrinthian building. By now, the performers are intimately familiar with the venue, but they still ooh and ahh over the treasures that decorate the rooms.
"There's an aesthetic about Clifton's that matches the aesthetic that Lucent has," says Roger Fojas. He is a "character performer" who also choreographs some of the "quirky, oddball numbers" that go on inside a Lucent Dossier event. On opening night, he played a "shoeshine guy" who read fortunes on the soles. Fojas has been with Lucent Dossier since the company's early years.
"In the early days, Lucent was a lot wilder," he says. "It was a lot more ragtag, less trained performers and more people who just had passion to want to create and do things out there."
He adds, "And there was really, really intense chemistry."
Now, the company has been around long enough where people have gone from Lucent Dossier fans to part of the group. Chanel Pepper, who has been a member of the company for two and a half years, is an aerialist and dancer who serves as the dance captain for the Clifton's residency. Pepper saw Lucent with her boyfriend back when she was trying to figure out where she was heading as a dancer. "I said, that's what I'm going to do," she recalls. When it came time for Pepper and her boyfriend to audition, she had 10 days to choreograph multiple aerial routines.
"I was there for their audition," Fojas confirms. "It was pretty amazing."
If there's a theme that runs through their work, it's one of connections: with one another, with the audience and with the space in which they work.
Clifton's is a multilevel hodgepodge that combines everything from woodland aesthetics — like taxidermied creatures and the gargantuan tree — to a Gothic church–inspired bar to an art deco ballroom and the tiki lounge. Similarly, Lucent combines myriad influences, from retro to modern, funny to sexy, all while sucking onlookers into the strange, intriguing world it created. It's immersive theater held in a hyper-real space.
"If you walk into Clifton's and see that giant tree," says Fojas, "that's the type of magic that Lucent also incorporates when you watch the performance where someone is swinging on the swing and random things happen."
Adds Rajiv Jain, whose many Lucent hats include performer, set designer and prop builder, "There's a lot of detail in this place. If you look at our costumes, we also like to be really detailed as much as possible ... and have a powerful statement. The tree is a very bold statement."
That tree is central to the company's latest experience. It's the base for the aerial performances but, because it rises through multiple floors, allowing more than just those near its base to see the routine, it can alter the performances.
"There's the idea of performing in theater in the round, where people are completely around you, but when you're performing at Clifton's, you're performing theater in a dome, because there is an audience above you and right across from you and they could potentially be below you as well," says Fojas.
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But the show goes beyond that central hub, extending into the various corners of the venue. "Each room inspires us," says Pepper, "and there aren't any rules."
She adds, "Honestly, with a different audience every time we're here, the mood shifts. I think we all feel it out and decide what we're going to do next. A lot of it is improv."
"It's a morphing journey," says Fojas, "with the characters and the audience."
Lucent Enchantment Society, Clifton's Cafeteria, 648 S. Broadway, downtown; Thu., Dec. 29, 8 p.m.; $30-$60, proceeds will benefit Standing Rock. lucentdossier.com/enchantment-society.