Alisia Waller may have been trained from the age of nine to become a ballerina, but what she really wants is a good fistfight. Wallerís postmodern dance-theater troupe And So No Sin has quietly choreographed a legacy of brutality over the past couple of years, but the gloves are coming off for the groupís latest ass-kicking production, Seven Acts of Violence, which is sort of a cross between Fight Club and Penn & Teller: an event that promises to leave more than a little blood on the dance floor. "Iím going deeper and deeper into combat," Waller says in a phone interview. "[Seven Acts] is gory and funny, but with a little more emphasis on the gore. And itís real. Itís even creepier when it gets real."
"This time I feel like Iíve come out of the combat closet," she says over a cell phone while, oddly enough, sitting in a doorway, locked out of her parentsí Jersey City home. "In the past my works have had violence in them, but theyíve been dance-oriented. This is just pure combat from beginning to end. Iím big into barroom brawls, sucker-punches, kicks, wrestling, blood effects. Thereís some fake guns in this one, but not many. Weapons are not my favorite. Iím more into hand-to-hand combat: the guys in the saloons minus the bottles."
A self-proclaimed "dancey-dance prodigy," Waller was plucked from a West Virginia ballet class and encouraged to explore modern dance by Elizabeth Bergman, now the director of the dance program at Harvard. Wallerís interest turned to postmodern choreography, and after graduating high school (at the age of 15), she wound up at the Museum School. But while bopping around the fringes of Bostonís avant-garde dance community, she began plotting revolution. "I was just so bored at all the group dance shows Iíd seen," she says. "We wanted something fun and new. We wanted to cause as much trouble as possible. Yvonne Rainer was my hero: no emotion! And then my thing exploded into this violent theatricality."
The turning point for Waller came when she discovered that one might make a profession out of staging fights. "It was the same as when Iíd learned about postmodern dance choreography: my reaction was, ĎWow! That exists?í So I went along doing fight scenes, and then I learned that there was such a thing as a fight choreographer, and I thought, ĎThatís it! Thatís what Iíve been trying to do all this time!í" Waller is now a member of the Society of American Fight Directors, and has studied with Robert Walsh, who has choreographed fight scenes for the American Repertory Theatre and Commonwealth Shakespeareís Henry V on Boston Common. She has also encountered womenís groups in New York and Chicago who stage their own battles. "Usually the people I meet are very theater-oriented people who have decided that fighting is their favorite part, but they usually love swords," she says with a groan. "Iím more about the knuckles-in-the-face part."
When she talks about Seven Acts being "real," she isnít talking about Jackass-style mayhem: just the opposite. "When I first started out, we would actually get hurt, because we didnít know how to fake things," she says. "Now we try to fake as little as possible while keeping people safe. In this show youíll see people making blood packs, putting them on their face: the idea is to show the behind-the-scenes stuff. Penn and Teller are hugely my heroes, so yeah, I want to do the same thing that they do: I want to show whatís behind everything you see, but scare you with it anyway."
The Seven Acts of the title, however, are drawn from actual events in Wallerís life, and therein lies the creepiness. "There is very serious content in it, but we always end up laughing our way through rehearsals," she explains. "We sometimes have to struggle to make it more serious. But itís very personal. The first violent act is art: combat dance is my favorite kind of violence, itís the kind that I do, and then we work up through getting beat up in school, and then rough-housing to make friends, where youíre being violent to assert yourself, but youíre also bonding. And then muggings and then on to the climactic one, this big, serious, frightening attack on a school bus. So it starts with the violence I like a lot and goes through the horribly traumatic stuff that it takes a long time to get over."
Although Waller wonít give too much away, the school-bus attack has clearly been the impetus for her interest in the art of combat. "Iíve been dealing with it for a while," she says. At one performance, she choreographed a ballet for a blindfolded audience at the old Zeitgeist Gallery. "We wanted to make the sound of someoneís head being smashed in, so we bashed a cantaloupe," she says. "It didnít quite work: the sound was really good, but then everyone smelled the cantaloupe."
And So No Sin Performance Troupe performs Seven Acts of Violence next Friday and Saturday, January 10 and 11, at 8 p.m., and next Sunday, January 12, at 3 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer period, at Mobius, 354 Congress Street in Boston. Tickets are $8. Call (617) 542-7416.