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Flash Review Journal,
6-26: Flying High Now
Philadelphia's Freedoms: Fusion, Collaboration, & More: 8 Reasons
why Philly Works
By Andrew Simonet
Copyright 2001 Andrew Simonet
PHILADELPHIA -- Moxie
Dance Collective's show at Philadelphia's Christ Church on June
7 presented 12 dances by Moxie's five founders (Nichole Canuso,
Peter D'Orsaneo, Christy Lee, Heather Murphy, and Lea Yeager). I
think this evening provides a great window into the Philadelphia
dance community, so I want to write about it by listing:
Eight Things That Work
in the Philly Dance Scene
The Philadelphia dance
scene is fueled by collaboration and cooperation. Many of the contemporary
dance and dance theater companies are collaborative/collective.
The Bald Mermaids, New Paradise Laboratories, SCRAP, Phrenic New
Ballet, Headlong Dance Theater (um.... I guess that's my company),
Group Motion, Moxie, Pig Iron Theatre Company, and New Action Theater
are all collaboratively run companies, although they function differently.
Some, like Headlong and Pig Iron, have more than one artistic director
and create work that is always collaborative; others, like Moxie,
are collectives to support the individual work of their members.
The members of Moxie
have long danced together in projects, other choreographers' work,
and even back in college. (A little disclosure: Canuso, Murphy,
and Lee all dance for Headlong Dance Theater, which I co-direct
with Amy Smith and David Brick.) They formed a collective both to
support their individual choreographic projects and to serve as
a steady pool of dancers and collaborators for each other. Rather
than starting from scratch with each project, the members of Moxie
can count on each other as dancers, and can build lasting company-like
This connection shows
in their dancing together. In "Folding Star," Murphy and D'Orsaneo
lurch seamlessly through gorgeous partnering against a brick wall.
Murphy stretches out horizontally, balanced on D'Orsaneo's feet,
her back improbably flat against the wall. D'Orsaneo perches, his
crotch on Murphy's foot, scarcely but startlingly off the floor.
This pair's years of working and dancing together as long-time collaborators
lend both loveliness and daring to their duet. They could not have
made this collaborative duet, nor could they perform it so deliciously,
without the years of dancing and dance-making they have shared.
Throughout the Moxie show, this history of engagement and connection
is visible. In Yeager's "Joyous Movement Study #5," all five Moxers
join, one at a time, a jubilant cycle of arm gestures, skips, and
sweet eye contact, playful in their clam diggers and white tees.
D'Orsaneo's "Charge" presents four women in black skirts propelled
through an athletic mix of full-bodied movement and gesture, the
complex internal space and stark beauty of the dancing reminiscent
of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's "Hoppla." The abstract movement
remains human in part because of the remarkable group energy, the
history of connection.
Folks in Philly are supportive,
seeing each other's work, giving feedback, and not being territorial
about dancers. There is a lot of generosity and kindness, I believe
due in part to all the collaborating that goes on. The isolation
of the solitary, visionary choreographer is being replaced by complex
webs of creative relationships like those embraced by Moxie.
Philly is a small enough
community that the various branches intersect. Even a freaky dance
theater person like myself can connect with folks from the Pennsylvania
Ballet and Rennie Harris's company. There's also overlap with the
theater world and the music scene. Two of the dances, "Folding Star"
and Canuso's "Hands on the Wheel," are to music by The Wayward Wind,
Rick Henderson's Eno-like studio project. When Henderson released
The Wayward Wind's "Drenched and Drained," instead of a typical
record release bash with live music, he got 12 choreographers to
make dances to the songs, and pressed play on the CD. It was quick
and dirty dance-making, and fun as hell.
Murphy's "Exhaust: late,
wake, hurry to wait" is a collaboration with composer James Sugg,
the creator of The Brothers Suggarillo, a Kurt Weill-like cabaret-music-performance
band, and a member of Pig Iron Theatre Company, a brilliant Lecoq-tinged
physical theater group. In the first section, Murphy explodes through
the space to Sugg's driving mixture of instruments, beats, and urban
sounds, then suddenly finds precise, powerful moments of unison
with the unpredictable score. In the second section, she stretches
and rebounds through a stunning, gravity-laden floor section to
Sugg's delicate accordion music. (Sometimes when Murphy dances,
I honestly cannot figure out how certain moves are possible.) These
are two brilliant artists who should work together, and thanks to
the spicy stew of dance-music-theater in Philadelphia, they do.
(4) Dancers That Are
Choreographers That Are Dancers
Many performers work
with more than one company. And the line between dancer and choreographer
is blurred, creating all sorts of nuanced, hybrid identities. Group
Motion, a 30-year-old company led by Manfred Fischbeck, is the original
Philadelphia collaborative/collective. Group Motion presents both
large-scale collaborative works directed by Fischbeck and work choreographed
by the company's dancers. Sections of Christy Lee's "Unfinished
Sweet" were first presented when she danced in Group Motion several
"Unfinished Sweet" has
expanded and deepened since then, and it still retains its bite.
In the (new) opening section, 14 women in poofy ball gowns adorn
the stage, first still, then fidgeting, adjusting, gesturing. They
slowly walk off, leaving only Lee against the upstage wall, in a
yellow dress and men's tighty-whitey underpants, framed by a square
of light which throws her shadow on the wall. P.J. Harvey's Mansize
plays as Lee launches into crisp arm and leg sequences and side
falls. Lots of side falls. Every time P.J. Harvey says "mansize,"
which is a lot, Lee collapses. This motif, combined with the delicious
interaction between Lee's limb phrases and the lyrics, evokes a
vivid balance of control and being controlled. Her utterly personal
movement merges with her mathematical choreographic mind to amazing
effect: the tight framework is the perfect setting for Lee's wild,
frenetic character. As she gradually journeys downstage in the corridor
of light, her shadow looms larger on the back wall, truly mansize
in the final menacing gesture of hands on throat. (Gorgeous lighting
thanks to Mark "MacGyver" O'Maley, who once lit a dance concert
with only a roll a tape, three D-size batteries, and some steel
wool.) This throat gesture begins the third section, a trio in the
upstage left corner. To more P.J. Harvey, the trio combines sharp-as-knives
balletic legs with smooth arm gestures, building through unison
and variation. Formally, this is great dance-making, but it is the
content that takes it over the top: the dresses, the compelling
gestures, the strong performers, and most of all the sense of connection
to the meaning of the work. When they break the circle and move
into space, these performers are not simply dancing around; they
are moving through this strikingly clear world. Though it is a world
we have only been in for ten minutes, we know its customs and its
rules, and if the dancers violated them, we would feel betrayed.
This world of movement
comes so clearly from our world, from our culture, that we recognize
it in all its strangeness and beauty. That is damned hard to achieve.
So often choreographers get tripped up trying to make that step.
As 'Sweet' continues, a second trio enters to form a sextet, picking
up earlier motifs of dress throwing and precise balletic legs. And
the final section drops the bomb: Lee begins on the diagonal, reiterating
her mansized solo. One by one, 13 (!) more dancers join her in a
seemingly endless line of ball gowns and collapsing bodies. This
spine-tingling visual image finishes "Unfinished Sweet."
(5) Dance Theater Camp
A little history: In
1995, Headlong created Dance Camp, a month-long festival for choreographers
that is entirely artist-run and free to all participants. Choreographers
teach morning classes and afternoon workshops five days a week for
the month of August. In the evenings and days off, campers rehearse
using each other as dancers. It's a chance to dance full-time for
a month, and to be process-oriented. This year, Dance Camp has become
Dance Theater Camp and will focus on the many dance/theater hybrids
in Philadelphia, providing both creative exchange and cross-training
for hybrid artists (acting and voice for dancers, technique and
movement invention for actors). Past Dance Camps have sparked much
collaboration and choreography, and we hope Dance Theater Camp will
create more connections within the already interwoven dance/theater
Nichole Canuso's "T43,"
the second dance on Moxie's program, is an example of Dance Camp
collaboration. Created at Dance Camp 96, "T43" originally featured
Canuso with the ridiculously talented Meg Fry and the explosive
Kelly Donovan (both now members of New York's De Facto Dance). It
is one of my favorite dances of all time. Three dancers begin in
a down spotlight executing small sways and initiations in physical
empathy with each other. These build until one falls flat to the
floor while the other two stare at her. A quick blackout and we
hear the dancers counting breathily, part numbers and part exhale.
The lights come up on a series of (apparently) numbered movements,
the three moving in and out of synchronicity. The group finally
reaches "seven" all together, and therefore is allowed to advance
to the next section. Again, the logic of the dance, its customs
and mores, feel instantly apparent, though I would be hard-pressed
to specify them. The dancers tumble cleanly through a series of
three-way partnering moves: Lee inverts and her feet are grabbed
by Canuso. who is seated on Murphy's back. A tangle of bobbing bodies
gives way to a seated leg trio, as chain reactions to small movements
set off hilarious falls. Canuso has a gift for creating movement
communities, dancing that stems from the (often humorous and touching)
interconnectedness of the performers. The attention of the dancers
-- the glare or aversion of their eyes, their micro-competitiveness
-- is a web that holds the choreography together. When "T43" returns
to the first image of two dancers staring at a dancer on the ground,
and ends sharply with one last group sway, we know that we have
been in the hands of a gifted choreographer, one who makes dancing
seem inherently meaningful, social, and compelling.
6) Bill Bissell and The
Pew Charitable Trusts
Bill is the (relatively)
new director of Dance Advance, the Pew's local dance funding program.
Dance Advance just gave out $700,000 to support artists and presenters
in Philly this year. It focuses on creation and artistic process,
and gives money to both individual choreographers and companies.
You know those times when you wish that brilliant, creative folks
had their hands on the levers of power? Bill is that person. He
is tremendously involved and conscientious in the community, showing
just how effective a funder can be when guided by dynamic and thoughtful
(7) Allen Iverson
(8) The Rockies
These are the new Philadelphia
dance awards started this year by Philadelphia Fringe Festival director
(and all-around superstar) Nick Stuccio. Named for our patron saint,
the Rockies will be whisper-down-the-lane. Instead of a competition
("Best Choreography," "Best Dancer"), the awards will be given out
by ten individuals to anyone and anything from the last year they
want to honor: a dance, a dancer, a company, a lighting designer,
a music composer. Then this year's ten winners will give out the
awards next year. So the question is not "Who's the Best?" The question
is "What do you personally think is excellent?"
Awards without losers.
A big community bash with cocktails. I can't wait.
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