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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

(1) Collaboration

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 creative relationships.

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.

(2) Love

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.

(3) Cross-Pollination

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 years ago.

"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 2001

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 communities.

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 management.

(7) Allen Iverson

Hell, yeah.

(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.


Andrew Simonet

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