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Letter from New York, 9-20: Fringe with the Frilly on Top
The Bearable Lightness of a Barely Curated Festival

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- The New York International Fringe Festival invaded New York City from August 10 through 26, spreading new and original works of theater and dance around town. I was pleasantly surprised to see that dance was represented by seven companies. I saw six of them.

Some of the venues, which were carved out of industrial loft space, old store fronts, and hidden back rooms, were new to this reviewer. Others, like New York University's Skirball Center, provided lush and comfortable settings, which challenged the work presented within by raising the bar by which the performance is judged.

The international theme was a stretch for the dance presentations. There was but one company/artist of international origin, Isabelle Barbat from Paris. Nonetheless the United States at large was widely represented by Ledges and Bones Dance Project from Los Angeles; Movement Forum from Salt Lake City; MN2 Productions from Cleveland; Anatomical Scenario Movement Theater from Columbus, Ohio; and New York's Vissi Dance Theater.

Each company was provided with four to five performances in the same venue but at different times of the day. For most companies the performances were spread across both weeks of the festival, which prevented direct conflicts with other dance performances on the festival.

The Fringe provided an opportunity to view dance work that was essentially self-curated. The festival chose from work submitted by the dance companies to the festival. In general the festival is very generous in its process of choosing. The curatorial vision appears to be: variety of style, exciting concepts, and catchy titles that may attract audience interest. On the positive side, this process allows the dance audience to see work that they might otherwise miss.

Each company had a viewpoint and a unique idea. In all cases it was obvious that much thought and genuine hard work was behind the idea -- it was apparent that the choreographers and dancers believed in their dance. But in some cases the idea was not new; it had been explored before by many others. In other cases the work was unevenly executed, or the idea didn't really work as a dance.

The strongest group piece was "Unrest" from the Ledges and Bones Dance Project, choreographed by Holly Johnston and performed in the Linhart Theatre @ 440 Studios. Johnston has worked with Victoria Marks and it showed in a good way. The quirky movements provide many moments of unpredictability. Starting with an eccentric solo, danced by the choreographer, that made good use of the floor, Johnston quickly changed gears into group work that more clearly reflected her smart use of timing. By juxtaposing entrances and exits with accumulation which came together in a less than predictable pattern she piqued our interest in would come next and why. Unfortunately, the dancers were not up to the choreography, appearing to be either under rehearsed or not quite up to the level necessary to do justice to the dance. With the exception of the last section of the dance, Johnston's effective use of simple electronic music enhanced the movement patterns and seemed to propel the motion and define each section of the dance like an asynchronous metronome. Unfortunately, as the music built in intensity throughout the evening the dynamic nature of the movement remained the same: lovely, pleasing, unpredictable, consistently interesting but with the same steady energy. Consequently by the last section of the dance section the volume, intensity, and frenetic nature of the music overtook the dance, spoiling the effect of the dance and destroying a well planned choreographic experience. Nonetheless, Johnston, who has been named by Dance Magazine as one of the top 25 to watch in 2007, is indeed someone to follow. I would absolutely attend her next choreographic endeavor, hoping for hoping for more congenial music and stronger dancing.

The most powerful dance performance was "Requiem Pour une ame Seule" choreographed and performed by Isabelle Barbat. A giant of a performer, Barbat's voice and her physical presence seemed to fill the Gene Frankel Theater even when she was still. She began prone, slowly shaking and rising, holding our attention through the intensity of her minimal movements, which eventually mimicked childbirth. Upon rising she walked in a deliberate fashion around the stage emitting moan-like sounds in her mezzo-sopranic voice which had no direction, almost ventriloquist-like in nature. Its haunting quality was all-encompassing in nature. She slowly built to an emotional frenzy while standing in a doorway facing upstage and singing unintelligibly to great effect. Her back was brightly lit and etched in space. The idea of grieving and pain was readily apparent in Barbat's trembling torso as she made full use of her voice's dynamic range. I only wished for a clearer image of her well-muscled back, which was broken by a disturbing bra strap anchored horizontally across its rippled surface. Just when the abstractions where taking hold in my mind and she had my attention firmly in her grasp, Barbat left the doorway and began moving towards the audience and singing "Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child." I held my head in horror and bowed it in depression. How could she introduce a song of this nature, actually any song, as the ending moment of what had been up to this point a riveting performance experience? I left trying to blot the song from my memory for the remainder of the day.

In the arena of old ideas/lame ideas I place the Anatomical Scenario Movement Theater's production of "Anna and the Annadroids: Clone Zone," choreographed by Anna Sullivan and performed in the Linhart Theatre @ 440 Studios. This was a one-act dance and video relaying the vicissitudes of the valium-medicated suburban girl who freaks out at her own birthday party by nodding out into her own birthday cake. Her delusional dreams, shown in a video, centered on the downer effects of her favorite drug. Upon awaking moments later, although we were subjected to the extended dream version in the video, she runs from the party vowing never to drop downers again. The dance looked like robotic cheerleaders in white face, jumping, tottering, and gyrating their way around the stage.

As for old ideas that have been explored by others we had the "Ancestral Voices," presented by MN2 Productions, choreographed by Natalie Kapeluck and Mark Tomasic and performed in the Linhart Theatre @ 440 Studios.The piece was based on Ukrainian folk songs and consisted of stories told and sung by Nadia Tarnawsky and danced by Tomasic and others. Each dance, done in a faux Limon fashion, was disappointingly presented and performed.

As for ideas that should never have been made into a dance we had "The Hoard," presented by the Vissi Dance Theater and performed in the Skirball. Written, directed, and choreographed by Courtney Ffrench (sic) this dance drama tells the tale of two tribes or peoples, the conquerors and the conquered. Through the portrayal of the peaceful tribe being attacked, conquered, and subsumed by the Hoarde tribe we see the incubation of revenge, which is meted out by the conquered queen upon the conquering king through betrayal, filicide, and finally murder.

As a story we quickly get the idea, and the program tells us what is going on in each section of the dance. It's a combination of Judith killing Holofernes to save the Israelites, and Medea killing her children to punish Jason. But, why a dance? Why not an opera? Why not a movie starring the gun-toting Jody Foster?

An epic of this nature is difficult for the most talented of companies. "The Hoarde" lacked the strong choreography necessary to keep the dance consistently interesting and Vissi Dance Theater lacked the classical trained dancers necessary to perform the larger-than-life roles required. In this case the Skirball was the correct theater for this work; unfortunately the dance did not live up to the venue.

Finally, another old idea with a semi-fresh approach, "The Game" by Movement Forum, began as a fun playful improv theater-like dance, which appeared interesting from a stand-up comedy viewpoint. The premise was that each dancer was a contestant. They competed for applause as they performed dance moves in response to ideas and concepts set forth by the "announcer," not the audience. We were left out of the equation. The first few contests held promise for a fun filled evening but the dance soon devolved into a contrivance. By the end we could not tell why the dancers were eliminated from the competition or why the final dancer won. There was little information to allow the audience to gauge the nature of the competition or the nature of the judging or whether our applause really counted for anything. The vacuous nature of the rules quickly sapped me of enthusiasm.

The Fringe dance experience lent itself to variety and unpredictable performances. Although the fare was less than satisfactory, the concept of intra-national presentations was inviting. I expect to see more dance companies from around the country and for that matter around the world on next year's Fringe and will continue to hope for better results.

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