Sepia-stained clowns, as if from an old-timey circus, teeter by on stilts. Dusty postapocalyptic warriors slither down from the sky on aerial silks. Sooty urchins of the Great Plague dance hypnotically. At a Lucent Dossier show you experience a world that doesn’t exist, a place where the future and the past happen simultaneously, as if under some metaphorical big top in a David Lynch dream sequence. The 26-member vaudeville circus troupe, filled with fire manipulators, trapeze artists, contortionists, ballerinas and belly dancers, has been bringing its brand of strange to public and private stages for four years.
The brainchild behind the magic and mayhem is founder Dream Rockwell, a quirky, very pretty blonde — sort of a Burning Man Barbie but earthy, not plastic-y. Lucent was a spinoff of the Do LaB, the art collective/event-creation company of which Rockwell was a member with a yearning to perform.
“I was always in dance troupes. It was always six or eight or 20 girls who looked exactly the same, wore the same thing, did the same thing, like little minions,” Rockwell says. “It just didn’t feel that creative to me. It felt claustrophobic.”
She sits in the troupe’s headquarters, a downtown warehouse shared with the Do LaB ensemble. The room is filled with vintage clothing fighting for space on racks. Piles of the fallen lie in heaps on the floor. Downstairs, the Do LaB’s lighting equipment lines the walls, giant fabric daisies hang from the ceiling, and Lucent Dossier’s mirrored rehearsal space is hemmed in by more costumes, hats, sequins, feathers, bones and, behind a fabric curtain, the busy Do LaB workspace.
Rockwell had always dreamed of creating and performing in a circus. She believed a three-ring atmosphere would provide the limitless creative freedom she craved. “I thought it would be amazing to have different bodies, different ages, dancing side by side. There’s so much prejudice over looks and age in performance,” she says. “I wanted to take that prejudice out.”
By chance, she met muralist Shrine (a.k.a. Brent Spears), who shared her latent desire to perform. The pair decided to pool their inexperience. “Neither of us had any idea how to go about creating a circus, so you know it made perfect sense for us to just do it,” she says with a little chuckle aimed at their bravado.
Despite not having an official troupe, they scored a gig performing in front of 3,000 people at a New Year’s Eve superbash in 2004. They had four weeks to get dancers, create a routine and make costumes. The latter involved two vegetarians and a vegan picking through the garbage outside a Popeye’s for chicken carcasses. The bones were bleached and sewn onto tribal headdresses and loincloths; feathers plucked from roadkill were scraped off asphalt, cleaned and attached here and there.
The concept of the first show: It’s sometime in the 1600s, a large ship carrying wealthy travelers crashes onto an island inhabited by earthy tribal people. Their cultures collide, and a year later, when a search party finds the shipwrecked group, everyone goes nuts dancing to a mash-up of Charleston and classical music with a break beat behind it.
“We got amazing reviews that night,” Rockwell says. Thus Lucent Dossier was born. They went on to win an MTV Music Award for their work in the video for “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies,” by the then–relatively unknown band Panic at the Disco! They toured with the band, and later with Aerosmith and Mötley Crüe.
Word about this exotic group got around fast. They were photographed by famed fashion photog Steven Meisel and featured in Italian Vogue. Festival organizers from all over the world booked the large ensemble, flying them to Portugal, Ireland, Guatemala and Japan. Always looking for ways to give back, Lucent members were inspired by the traveling to start a foundation called Cuddle the World. They seek out orphanages in the cities where they perform, bring clown noses, fairy wings and cuddle blankets, and put on a show for the children.
“A lot of them are getting basic care, a bed, food, a safe wall to hide behind, but they don’t have anybody inspiring them to be magical,” says Rockwell, tying back her thick, blond hair.
Last year, and until recently, you could catch a Lucent Dossier show once a week at the Edison downtown. The show featured trapeze artists, aerialists, the works. But it was the element of audience participation at the Edison that Rockwell says is what performing’s all about.
“Having a wall between audience and performers creates a scenario where the audience is disconnected, just observing,” she says. “They aren’t touched in any way. They go home and they kind of forget about it. We want to tear down that wall, break down the master-servant kind of paradigm.”
So at the Edison, performers would go out into the crowd and wash people’s feet. They delivered letters lost in other dimensions to members of the audience. For the dancers, who penned the letters before each show, the notes represented missives they wish they’d written — or received.
“The reactions people had were amazing,” Rockwell says. “Some people cried. Someone told me that they had waited 20 years for their letter.”
The troupe continues to perform at many of the Do LaB’s events, including the green music festival Lightning in a Bottle and the Valentine’s Day extravaganza Lucent L’Amour. But Lucent Dossier’s water show in the ever-expanding the Do LaB shade garden at Coachella is a spectacular must-see (and feel!) every year. Under the abusive afternoon desert sun, getting soaked with the troupe’s high-powered water guns and cannons while belly-dancing feathered goddesses feed you orange slices feels like a baptism, or an initiation into a cosmic Gypsy clan.
It’s hard to describe the clash of dance genres, history references and pop culture, the frenetic energy of a Lucent show.
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“What we do onstage is so big and chaotic,” says Rockwell, quoting something Spears once said, “it gives people in the audience just an ounce of permission to be that much crazier in their daily life. Basically, we issue little permission slips.”