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Live Arts/Philly Fringe Festival in its Tenth Year

by Merilyn Jackson
September 1, 2006
Arden Theater
Arts Bank
Christ Church
Ice Box Project Space
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Painted Bride
The Streets of Old City
and dozens of other venues

Featured Dance Company:

BalletX
BalletX (mail)
P.O. Box 22713
Philadelphia, PA 19110-2713
215-280-4824
www.balletx.org

IS IT FRINGE OR LIVE ARTS? IS IT DANCE OR PHYSICAL THEATER?

STEEP YOURSELF IN THIS FESTIVAL AND THE STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA FOR TWO WEEKS, AND YOU'LL KNOW
LiveArts/Philly Fringe Preview

In its tenth year, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival has morphed into the LiveArts/Fringe Festival and still boasts close to 40 dance events between these divisions. Live Arts presents juried and financially supported artists, and the Edinburgh Fringe-licensed Fringe gives emerging artists and established artists opportunities to make test runs. It begins September 1 and goes on daily through the 16th.

As a featured dance critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer for nine years, I covered the festival's dance entries, in one year attending all 37 works. In other years, I made it to more than half and still tried to get in a few theater and music events.

Though I was paid to see and write about them, I caught the Fringe Flaneur bug early on: lounging at sidewalk cafes, waiting for passersby to tell me what not to miss, missing some things because my food or drink was just arriving. I even had an argument with one of my Inquirer editors over the use of the word flaneur. He was a dear old newspaperman who took things literally. The dictionary said "An aimless idler; a loafer." He argued that you go to the festival with a purpose, to see a certain something, buy tickets and go home.

I argued that he might be going right home, but that by hanging out a lot myself, I could see that people were more like boulevardiers, (another argument) lounge lizards, or like flaneurs who could be coaxed into action, sometimes letting the flow take them — to a show, a happening, an art ambush, even a date.

So people sit around the box office, park benches, cafes, even house stoops reading their guides, sometimes asking perfect strangers what they think of the event they just walked out of before buying a ticket.

Of course, it helps to have some guidance to the artists and some background on the festival and what it has done for the arts in Philadelphia.

Don't be surprised when you open your guide if it seems dance heavy. One of the original festival founders is Nick Stuccio who along with his wife, Anne White, danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet for many years. Stuccio and award-winning dancer/choreographer Eric Schoefer launched the Fringe Festival off their success with Shut Up and Dance, the now annual event that raises money for AIDS patients. Schoefer hewed to dance and choreography, producing the haunting large-scale aerial works that set the mark for successive festivals.

Stuccio found his impresario chops and hunkered down to yeoman work, traveling the world scouting for artists to bring to Philadelphia. He attended most local dance events, culling and cultivating innovative local talent. Eventually he decided to give his festival its current two tiers.

This year's guide seems more succinct. Its huge, unwieldy and often difficult to define events are easier to grasp. The text for each artist is mostly self-written and any artist who has something to say on the stage will have something meaningful to say on the page. But it's still little to go on if the terrain is unfamiliar to you. Based on what they say about their work intentions and my past familiarity with many of the dance makers, I'm recommending about half of this year's dance concerts. But the thrill of this festival is finding the gems no one else seems to know about. So, while my recommendations are safe bets, don't limit yourself to them.

Beginning with a Philly dancer of high rank, Nichole Canuso, I anticipate a tantalizing trinity of pure contemporary dances. They'll likely be swollen with her sweetly comic antics or pervaded with her dreamy, little girl wonderment. She describes Fail Better, one of three works on her program, as "an eerie interaction between dancer and object on a set that grows and moves." Sounds like vintage Canuso.

Group Motion has graced the Philly dance scene for more than 35 years, performing here and internationally. A contemporary company rooted in improvisation but not stuck there, it continues to evolve organically, drawing some of the best local movers into its fold. The work they developed through international exchanges with German and Japanese choreographers resulted in some stunning dance pieces. This year the group's artistic director, Manfred Fischbeck, works with Argentinean choreographer Oscar Araiz in a work that "addresses the chaos and despair of the Holocaust and its aftermath."

I can't be sure if Karen Getz's Suburban Love Songs has enough dance in it to be called dance theater, but that is one of the charms of this two-week event - trying to categorize a show. Still, it sounds like a physical theater work with lots of movement that Getz calls "delightfully human inelegance."

A festival favorite, Pig Iron Theatre Company presents Love Unpunished, choreographed by Headlong Dance Theater's David Brick. Brick's work with the non-hearing infuses his choreographic impulses with uncannily clear communicative movement. In this first collaboration, I'm completely confident the Obie-winning Pig Iron troupe will execute anything Brick dreams up.

Yet another charm of the LiveArts/Fringe is its often quirky venue selection. In the case of Miro Dance Theater dancing on the stage of The Cinema at 39th and Walnut won't be too odd. After all, dancer/choreographer Amanda Miller is married to videographer Tobin Rothlein who co-founded Miro with her. His award-winning work informs all their dance pieces. This year they collaborate with Europe's Antony Rizzi. Rizzi, an original dancer with William Forsythe's Frankfurt Ballet, has served as Forsythe's choreographic assistant for 15 years. The three say Lie to Me is "A whirling array of narcolepts, pyromaniacs, paper dolls and dreamers that weaves a tapestry of video art, ballet and modern dance in a magic-realism performance that poses intoxicating questions…"

Is ballet Fringe? Depends on who's making it. Take Ballet X founded by Pennsylvania Ballet darlings, Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan. They pair off with yet another European dance star, Finnish choreographer and former principle dancer with Netherlands Dans Theater, Jorma Elo. Elo backdrops his seven dancers with video storyboards about a man trying, and failing, to tell the story of Carmen.

At rehearsal, Neenan said his 20-minute piece is "kinda dangerous." For it, he repurposed an older piece that had a prop like a broken fence and calls the new work Broke Apart, an "unofficial part two." The prop, he says, "is jumped over like hurdles and swung over like parallel bars. It moves and can potentially injure the dancers, but it helps make Broke Apart very gymnastic, and the dance is much more contemporary than I usually do." Nevertheless, Neenan said, while the cast wears flats, Amy Aldridge, a long-time Pennsylvania Ballet star, wears pointe shoes as she dances to songs by Martha Wainwright, She Haw and Cyndi Lauper.

Nowadays you can't have a Fringe without a category called Interdisciplinary, presuming everyone knows what that is. In this case, it doesn't matter. When you have people like Liz Lerman and her D.C-based Dance Exchange partnering with Philly's Village of Arts and Humanities to make a work called Coil, just go find out. The artists explore the human genome and you can hardly get more elemental than that.

In addition to these main stage shows by Philadelphia-based dancers and their out-of-town collaborators, there are several noteworthy and very Fringe-y events that should not be missed. Among them Site-Dance and Dance-in-Progress that will no doubt be fun, interactive, and maybe, a little bit scary. Still Unknown is Subcircle's performance installation in a former frozen fish factory. Headlong Dance Theater engages one audience member at a time. By cell phone, they'll guide you on a secret-dance-agent training mission throughout Old City. Kate Watson-Wallace makes her venue a performance partner as you travel through her work, House.

Tania Isaac meditates on the meaning of motherhood in Stuporwoman Phase II and Charles O. Anderson solos to African drumming and song in Tar, an examination of life in the deep American south. Both are works-in-progress, but neither of these extremely talented artists would put anything half-baked before an audience.

Next week, my follow-up article will highlight many New York and international dance makers coming to the Philadelphia LiveArts/Fringe Festival. So do come too. Engage in some flanerie with me, with thousands of other idlers or let yourself buy a ticket to ride a roller coaster of performance, theater, dance and music.

For venues, times and tickets click on: www.livearts-fringe.org or call 215 413 1318
Tara Keating, Matthew Neenan and Christine Cox of BalletX

Tara Keating, Matthew Neenan and Christine Cox of BalletX

Photo © & courtesy of Gabriel Bienczycki

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