Photograph by Michael Amsler
Nothing stilted about the performance art of Danger Ha Ha
By David Templeton
"ALL PERFORMANCE is a sacred act," says Kym Trippsmith. "When you bring joy and laughter to people, you are doing something that is purely sacred. It is possible to heal the planet through performance. That's my party line.
"And that's the place Danger Ha Ha is coming from."
Danger Ha Ha: it sounds like a mistake, like random tidbits accidentally cut and pasted from the transcript of some old Underdog cartoon. It's a name so odd and unusual you can't help but wonder if you heard it correctly. When people hear it spoken, they instantly wonder how it's spelled; when they read it in print, they want to say it out loud two or three times, just to feel it playing over their own disbelieving tongue.
Danger Ha Ha--a 10-member environmentally aware performance troupe based in Sonoma County, honchoed by Trippsmith, who lives in Occidental--has been bringing sacred joy and pure laughter to astonished people across the country for over four years.
And if you think the name is weird, just wait till you see them in action.
"What we do," explains Trippsmith, "is to surprise people by confronting them with something so spectacular and out-of-the-ordinary that they instantly forget their 9-to-5 jobs, forget their worries and problems, feel wonderful and happy, and suddenly realize that they themselves are spectacular and special and out of the ordinary."
Or, in other words, "We do daredevil stilting," she says.
And that's only the beginning. Danger Ha Ha, employing a wild combination of acting, dance, music, acrobatics, operatic harmonizing, and fire-juggling, have taken the art of walking on stilts and elevated it to previously unknown heights of physical daring and visual beauty.
What began as a one-time environmental-theater event at the fabled Burning Man celebration has become a semi-legendary traveling performance-art sideshow at fairs, festivals, and corporate events around the nation.
Wherever they go, people agree that seeing Danger Ha Ha in action is an experience that more or less defies description.
Photograph by Michael Amsler
"We run into that 'description' problem all the time," admits the 30-something Trippsmith, a full-time freelance writer who majored in environmental science and theater production at Evergreen college and trained for years as a modern dancer. "We're hard to describe. People really have to come see us to believe us. And even then a lot of people don't believe what they see."
You have two opportunities to see for yourself. The troupe performs at both the Health and Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa on June 10 and 11 and at the Marin Art Festival in San Rafael on June 18. Danger Ha Ha--Amanda Burton of Guerneville, Heather Wakefield of Sebastopol, and the other members, all of whom hail from around the Bay Area--will be on hand (and on stilts), working their way across (and above) a festive landscape peopled with 150 artists, craftspersons, musicians, and entertainers.
The troupe performs on stilts that range from four to seven feet tall, and the performers usually appear in outrageously elaborate costumes that reach to the ground. Some are blazing white, hoop-skirted gowns adorned with feathers. Some are trees. Some are fairies floating above the crowds, freely dropping flower petals on the upturned faces.
"Fairies are a big part of what we do," says Trippsmith. "Fairies are wonderful, because they are such an important part of our collective conscious. Kids look up and think, 'Of course. Fairies. What could be more normal?' and adults just go 'Wow.' Looking down at their expressions, we can see something open up in their hearts, a place of lightness and happiness."
In the course of a Danger Ha Ha show, the stilters do more than walk around in costume.
Heck, anyone can do that.
Trippsmith and the rest of the company dance on their stilts. They skip and jump up and down on their stilts. They sing arias in five-part harmony on their stilts. They do somersaults on their stilts. They join hands and spin each other through the air on stilts.
"In our most spectacular trick," she says, "one of our stilters dips a rope in white gas, lights it, then lights his stilts on fire. Then he skips rope. When we perform inside, we turn the lights off. It's pretty amazing."
Trippsmith, who broke her hand in a fall from her stilts last year, is enthusiastic about pushing the envelope of what is possible. There are metaphorical reasons for this, she says.
"We want to heal the planet," she says simply. "We want people to recognize that it's up to us to heal the planet. But it's not easy. Most people are doing everything they can just to recycle their plastic. So we know it won't be easy.
"But it is possible. Just look at what we do up there. We do the impossible all the time."
Danger Ha Ha will perform at the Health and Harmony Festival on Saturday and Sunday, June 10 and 11, at 2 p.m. at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. For prices and details, call 575-9355. They'll perform again on Sunday, June 18, at 1 and 4:30 p.m. at the Marin Art Festival at Lagoon Park, Marin Center, Civic Center Drive, San Rafael. Admission is $6. For details, call 415/472-3500.
From the June 8-14, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.