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Frenzied Show-Hopping Ends The Philly Fringe Festival

by Merilyn Jackson
September 23, 2006
Painted Bride Arts Center
Kimmel Center, Perelman Theater
University of Pennsylvania Cinema
Sol Gallery
Old City
The second week of the Live Arts/Philly Fringe Festival brought many marvelous theatrical achievements and some notable moments. Headlong Dance Theater's Cell was one I only have second hand reports on. I wasn't able to get in on it. But David Witz was one of HDT's first takers and said it was his most diabolical Fringe experience ever. Witz runs PR for Delilah's, a "gentleman's club" in Old City and knows the area well. With about 30 pair of eyes on him as he was directed through the neighborhood, by cell phone, he says he was "forced" to dance in alleyways and near sidewalk cafes and somehow got through it without tripping up. I do hope he took his cell and also went to Hell, reviewed below.
JEB KREAGER
Contest succeeded even at the level of a beginning piece. Kreager got 20 dancers to sing chorale, march in drills and dance with their trophies as they kept their eyes on the prize in this half-hour, late night show at the Painted Bride. Featuring teamwork, brawling, winning and losing, this work could be expanded to include more of the dynamics of sport and competition.

MIRO DANCE THEATER
As co-directors of Miro, dancer/choreographer Amanda Miller and videographer Tobin Rothlein put Lie to Me less successfully across in UPenn's Cinema. It featured choreography by Antony Rizzi. But where was it? Large chunks of this disjointed show were altogether dance-free while the text took over and Rothlein's award-winning videography did not seem to be much on tap. One memorable dance moment had Miller in a pleated paper tutu with Rothlein's video of railroad tracks behind her. She was barefoot and performed mock fouetté turns that made me think of the exhausted Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. The message seemed to be a search for transparency, but with the one exception above, this was not one of this team's works I could see my way through.

THE BALD MERMAIDS
It wouldn't be a Fringe if I didn't get to see the Bald Mermaids. I was glad to get in at the last minute on their final night. That's what the Fringe is all about, one show ends late and you can't get to one that you had tix for but you can hop into a delicious little gallery dance like Your Head is not a Secret Place…Everyone is there. I encouraged two hesitant guys hanging back on the sidewalk to buy tickets. I told them the Mermaids did outrageous things and les girls delivered.

If I were giving awards, I would give them one for the best use of a small space. After following the trench-coated sirens (well, it was raining) into the gallery from the street outside we found one lonely dancer in red and black deshabille. The other four included two of the original Mermaids, Rebecca Sloan and Katie McNamara still looking like an ingénue! They burst out from behind the curtains where they'd been hiding on the high ledges. By turn, they soloed their own choreography with Kristen Shahverdian's and McNamara's the sexiest. Shahverdian danced vertically in a tight circle of light designed by Lisa Gochee. McNamara stayed in a character she's developed over time, in a dance that had her falling in love and falling because she caught her spike heel in her stretchy skirt. Bad girl. And near the end, Sloan and McNamara shook cocktail shakers and shoulders in the Sol Gallery's tiny kitchen.

Two major coups for Philadelphia were the debuts of Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group and Emio Greco/PC.

REGGIE WILSON/FIST & HEEL PERFORMANCE GROUP

Wilson and his seven sinuous dancers and deep-throated singers took the Painted Bride's stage with an ease that aimed to please. The opening number had them doing the Big Apple, the Charleston and the Boogie Woogie with Wilson off to the side, calling the dances. Of different ages and body types, their telepathic dancing made them into a kind of family. Elaine Flowers' rich voice was as smooth as her unforced dancing. Newcomer Edise Weeks fit in like she'd been born to the clan. Michel Kouakou of the Ivory Coast danced with the affection and delight of a son returned home. Their tight formation in Grace Jones' version of La Vie en Rose was elegance in motion. The title, The Tale: Npinpee Nckutchie and the Tail, of the Golden Dek was a bit of Brer Rabbit slyness on Wilson's part.

EMIO GRECO/PC
I'd wait an eternity to get into Emio Greco's and Peter Scholten's Hell and think I was in heaven. The 100 minute work at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater went by in a blink of absorption in the loosely thematic material and delirious delight in the very fine dancing and mind- and body- bending choreography. Greco seems to be saying Hell isn't all its cracked up to be and yet, it is more than the sum of its parts. He plumbs hell's depths through deconstructed readings of Dante and tangoing nude to the allegro con brio of Beethoven's Fifth.

They started off clothed ten minutes to opening with a rousing Broadway-style prologue that had the audience whooping and shouting and talking about the dancers as each disco-danced to show off their stuff. A denuded tree stands to one side and a lit-up arch to the other. Tree of knowledge? Doorway to hell? Perhaps, but Greco and Scholten aren't up to cheap and easily-discerned signifiers. Upstage and barely visible stands Greco, observing.

Germany's Suzan Tunca, in a sequined black slink of a dress, and Italy's Nicola Monaco diabolically whipped those of us who weren't already dead into a near frenzy. There was at least one pale and cold audience member who didn't get it and tried to shush people around her. It was hard for us to settle down when the actual piece began and I think Greco and Scholten were going for putting us in that emotional state.

As the stage empties an "intelligent" light rolls out from the wing. It looks like a little robot and provokes a laugh from the audience. And that is our last titter as we hold our breaths while the dance progresses through its stages.

Undulating torsos later translate into angular isolation. Arms flail wildly and later swing to a dead stop, planting fingertips in exact spots in the air. The phrases repeat and change shape. A long ballet sequence has Monaco and France's Vincent Colomes look as if they are infernally condemned to leap into multiple entrechats and changements with knees bent inwards. Sometimes the company of eight look like elegantly tattered refugees from Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal — on double espressos. This is especially so when they dance a ballet to a military march.

We are taken to yet another level in this fiendish dance when an overhead spot circles Greco, slowly at first, and then more rapidly as dancers attempt to keep up with them. Greco flings off his tacky black wig and a hooded-phantom appears behind him like a shadow.

The other dancers, now only in briefs, hold onto each other like exhausted boxers in the last round. They take a false curtain call. The house lights come up and to Beethoven's 5th they dance fully-nude in erotic lunges toward a diagonal light. Some dancers bring out electric guitars and line the apron of the stage with them. An electronic version of Claire de Lune plays as the light bathes their limbs in blue. Another false ending? The audience couldn't be sure and would not have minded.

Lastly, two Philadelphia groups made history at the 2006 festival. They gave performances that will long be remembered and talked about.

NICHOLE CANUSO
I can't help but suspect that two titles on Nichole Canuso's show somehow have a through line. Here We Are Again grew out of a piece called Better I'd Stayed Up to which I gave a yawning review three years ago. It was then only the beginning of a concept. And with the resounding success of Fail Better Canuso really stuck it in my eye. She is cheeky and subtle enough to do that, though dare I be egotistical enough to think that was her intention? But if my burr spurred her on to two of her greatest works to date, I am pleased she has the spunk to defy her critics.

Canuso's choreography is of the body and the eyes. Her beautiful big brown eyes, that is. Would that her partners in dance could match their childlike self-mockery, but she has expression enough for all to play off. In Here We Are Again Jillian Bird, David Brick, Meg Foley, Lee Shapely (is that a name for a dancer, or what?), Michele Tantoco and Canuso weave among themselves like sleepers awake. And like characters we reorganize in semi-waking dreams, Canuso trains them to play and eventually play themselves out. As she falls into repose, she seems to have met the man of her dreams.

Lovely as this piece was, her solo work Fail Better brought the audience to its feet. Starting with a white ball, Canuso rolls and follows it around the stage, catching it before it can disappear. The ball is joined by square blocks slid onto the stage by an unseen hand. First, one, two, then three, then whizzing by her by the dozen, they cause her consternation. Once they come to a stop, it becomes apparent that this first-time mom has been observing her toddler. Without mimicking baby-like moves or ever being cute, she has perfectly caught the way babies learn, experiment and move on. After building several towers out of the blocks, she danced among them daring them to fall, which they did not. This fresh and original dance puts the ball squarely in Canuso's court and she could travel it anywhere in the world.

LOVE UNPUNISHED

As I left the theater after Pig Iron Theater Company's Love Unpunished I saw the director, Dan Rothenberg. I told him I felt like I was in church. He thanked me for what he knew was a compliment and a moment later an usher handed out post-program notes in the lobby. The play grew from an image Rothenberg had of the people running down flight after flight of stairs in the World Trade Center on 9/11. "I kept imagining," he says in his notes, "that the stairs weren't actually going down, that you were in some kind of loop."

From this simple premise came the stage set (by Mimi Lien) â€" four flights of stairs reaching up into the fly space and dipping down below the stage surface, the ordinary, unsuspecting people exiting the building, a barely audible fire alarm in the background (by sound designers/composers, Troy Herion and Sean Mattio) and sickly green lighting (Tyler Micoleau.) As Rothenberg had wished it all added up to "a prayer for the dead."

Rothenberg, who collaborated with choreographer/dancer David Brick (Headlong Dance Theater) also credits the entire Pig Iron team, calling it group authored. Brick gave the company two watchwords â€" tactile and compassion. These sensory suggestions informed the actors' mostly pedestrian movements. But falling, running, carrying or rushing past each other, and the awful repetition that represented the thousands of dead, created a powerful evocation of their last moments.

I looked around at the audience a moment before the house lights went dark. Many people held their hands over their mouths or to their foreheads, incomprehensively and viscerally re-experiencing our horror and our grief, hushed, silent. Our applause, when it came, was not deafening, but reverential. We had been brought together with the spirits of our dead and we wanted to comfort them for a few fleeting moments.

The cast: Jerrel Anderson, Hinako Arao, Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Makoto Hirano, Jaamil Kosoko, Sarah Sanford, Wendy Staton, James Sugg, Mikaal Sulaiman and Dito van Reigersberg.

© Merilyn Jackson, 2006
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