It's Not Easy Being Blue: Backstage at the Ocean-Themed Circus

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Jodi Lomask looks a bit frazzled when she answers the door. A reporter is visiting, a photographer is visiting (unrelated), it's the middle of rehearsal, and a new company member is auditioning. All of these things require her attention, and there is only so much of it to go around. The photographer and reporter are given brief introductions and then passed off to whoever is within earshot. Then she returns to her work.

Lomask is the artistic director and creator of Capacitor's dance/circus show Okeanos Intimate, currently playing in the theater at the Aquarium of the Bay. The show carries a message of ocean conservation, and maintains a water theme throughout the production.

And Lomask spends her entire evening swimming in the world she's created.

"I like that," she says to a dancer about a rather tricky transition. "The only problem with it is..." and here, the dancer finishes her sentence, "I know. It leaves me over here by myself."

After the transition is settled, Lomask heads up to her favorite seat, perched in the back row with her laptop open. From here, she can keep an eye on everything. A lone tech worker makes occasional trips to discuss C clamps and lighting, and the house manager comes to confer about ticket sales and other details. Occasionally, Lomask will catch something amiss in the rehearsal and yell out notes to the cast. "Can we get clear about who joins Elliott here?"

The rest of the room is a bit more relaxed. Everything in the show is practiced, but the performers wear casual clothes and exhibit varying degrees of intensity on the stage. Veterans of Okeanos like Maggie Powers and Elliott Gittelsohn simply walk through the movements of their numbers, and some performers lounge around on the floor in front of the stage, casually doing the splits while playing with their cellphones or chewing on pre-show snacks.

Stripped of its intensity, costumes and stage lights, the show is almost unrecognizable. Lomask, however, never loses interest -- she continues to take and give notes until it's time for the cast to get in costume.

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Perhaps this is no surprise, given how much work went into creating Okeanos. Lomask didn't want to just create a show with an ocean theme, but to get the facts right as well. She spent months learning about ocean ecology, and the natural movements of sea creatures.

"During the process of creating the piece I took as many opportunities to be in the ocean as possible and saw what it did to my movement," Lomask said. "I would let all of the air out of my lungs and then sink down and see how relaxed I could be."

To create the sets and the educational component of the show, she consulted with a team of ocean experts that included the famed explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle and National Geographic cinematographer David Hannan. The show is narrated by Earle and Dr. Tierney Thys through a series of voiceovers. It opens with the voice of Earle, who says, "All living things are sea creatures. Even humans."

Lomask wants the viewer to get a taste of the vastness of the ocean, but also to see how our behavior affects the planet. The audience should be entertained, but also inspired to help the planet's oceans. The program lists 10 simple things anyone can do to contribute to ocean health worldwide. They range from the truly easy, like spreading the word, to choosing sustainable seafood and participating in ocean cleanup days.

"We go to the ocean and it just seems huge, and that's partly why we got into this mess in the first place. It's hard for humans to imagine we could have an impact on something that huge," Lomask said. "But if enough people do a few small things, it could have a really huge impact."

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That message resonates well in the Bay Area. Okeanos Intimate was recently extended through the rest of the year. This made for a longer commitment than Capacitor's usual run of 2-3 weeks, and the process hasn't been without its bumps. Almost as soon as the extension went through, the federal government shut down.

"Tourism fell off of a cliff after the government shutdown. Alcatraz was closed, etc.," Lomask said. "We went from selling 180 tickets to like 20 per show."

It took some time and extra marketing efforts, but things are getting back to normal for the company. Saturday's show was well attended, and the audience was enthusiastic.

Even when the lights went down, Lomask kept her seat in the back row.

The first act started with the voice of Earle, videos of vast ocean waves and five dancers swaying on the stage. Then the quiet scene was disturbed by a small but audible click. The visiting photographer's camera wasn't digital. Each time he took a photo, the sound carried across the theater. Lomask leaned over to the reporter sitting next to her.

"Is that clicking sound really annoying?," she asked.

It was, but not for long. Lomask crept across the room, and soon the photographer was much more discreet. After that, her attention never wavered. Through the doubles acrobatic routine of the sea horse mating ritual, the spirited contemporary dance numbers, the coral skirt contortion routine, and the show's final act with a dancing fish caught on a piece of plastic debris. She didn't move until the cast's final bow, when several members of the audience leapt to their feet.

"Audiences have been enthusiastic," she said. "But it's also getting them excited to do something about the ocean."

Okeanos Intimate plays Thursdays and Saturdays through the end of the year. Shows start at 8 p.m. at the Aquarium of the Bay, Pier 39, the Embarcadero. Tickets are $15-$30; call 623-5300 or visit capacitor.org.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Jonathan at @Devinistyping, and like us on Facebook.

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