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Flash Journal, 9-5: Fringing, Philly Style
Stalked by Stilt-Walkers, Hit by Hip-Hop

By Anne-Marie Mulgrew
Copyright 2000 Anne-Marie Mulgrew

PHILADELPHIA -- Surprise, mind-blowing fantasy, human-defying physicality and moments of heart-wrenching tenderness hovered throughout the opening of the 2000 Philadelphia Fringe Festival in Olde City on September 1. The mix of First Friday at the galleries, Labor Day weekend and the hot muggy weather brought big crowds to the events I attended. Deciding what to see is a daunting task! The Fringe Guide is 60 pages filled to the brim with eye-popping images and very tiny print, hawking 200-plus dance, theater, and music acts in 40 venues over 16 days.

The Philadelphia Fringe Parade kicks off the festival with a "shameless self-promotion" cheerleading campaign where artists are invited to bring costumes and flyers and strut their stuff. Fringe types such as the man who puts a nail through his nose, the faux muscle woman, and the crab and lice bulletin board lady joined stilt-walkers, a marching band, dancing girls/boys, monsters and other characters that defy definition in a march through the streets, taking the sidewalk crowds with them.

The parade comes to a dead stop at 3rd and Race, interrupted by the momentous appearance of the Stalkers, two drop-dead compelling ten foot tall Australian stilt walkers dressed in luminous teal blue-hooded spandex full-bodied costumes with slits for eyes, arms extended by six foot poles built into the fabric. The Stalkers corral the audience to their performance site in an empty asphalt lot, under the Ben Franklin Bridge. As two drummers play, the two performers seductively move to and away from the audience, spreading their fifteen-foot arms like exotic sci-fi creatures/aliens, divinely out-of-place in this urban jungle. You sense their delight in shifting weight from stilt to stilt. These masters of illusion strut, perch, leap, squat, and swing their arms wildly, poking and punching the earth and the sky, creating fantastic shapes and consuming space while blurring worlds -- aborigine and contemporary, future and past, male and female.

A battle ensues; the female, then the male loses the teal blue costume, exposing black costumes underneath and freeing hands. Another Stalker enters. The three work the crowd, somersaulting on stilts. They balance on their hands, shoulders, and heads, ending in straddles that stretch a city block. They leap from stilt to stilt. The crowd is smitten, totally enraptured by their fearless risk-taking acrobatic moves, otherworldly partnering, and dangerous backbends off the stilts into the ground, sometimes collapsing off the stilts, arching into the copra on cement. I wonder what are they made of to endure such physical tests of stamina, balance and flexibility? They tease the crowd -- do a line dance with a chorus line kick that gives new meaning to the term extension. They crawl on the ground like predators. They connect, morphing into a wild creature with six humongous legs, pedaling, searching. One fun moment is when the two men balance on their heads stilts against the skyline and the female squeezes between them seated on the top of her stilts as if posing for Spin magazine. They pick up long sticks with a rubberized edge. By now, the audience can believe and imagine anything! They stab the sticks into the earth; I hope these warriors don't try to pole vault wearing stilts! They don't. Instead they lean, fall, and grope, becoming a wonderful machine.

.... There's an air of anticipation as the crowd lines up at Arden Theater's Arcadia stage for the world premiere of "The View From Over Here," choreographed by Netherlands Dance Theater's Jorma Elo for eight Pennsylvania Ballet dancers. Jorge Cousineau's sparse set construction, designed by Elo and consisting of white boxes and two screens, is in place as the chiseled dancers in black tops and trunks enter. The mood is uncomfortable -- restless, dark, foreboding. There's shifting of weight, silence and the sound of kids' voices. One dancer is lying on the floor prone, his head hidden by the box. The audience is still arriving.

Meredith Rainey enters from the back of the audience. I can't see him but hear body sounds -- thumping, slapping. He dances an introspective, somewhat tormented solo, sliding his hand down his forearm, feet parallel, forced, and arched, and body contracted, accented by tiny detailed movements, moving onto the stage. He slams himself against the wall. Others enter; there's a sense of repression, tiny gestures, whipping legs, hands caressing/touching the body, and slamming the wall. The long-limbed beauty Amanda Miller moves the screen, a repeated motif in this hour-long narrative work about relationships. A video clip projects abstract textured fluid images -- water/fabric?

There's an obsessive/possessive/territorial solo where a male dancer picks up boxes, takes them apart, changes their positions, and moves them within a six-foot square area. The stark lighting design by John Hoey causes his shadow to be projected on the wall. I'm on the edge of my seat. It's a thrill to watch at close range Amy Aldridge, Christine Cox, Tara Keating, Amanda Miller, David Krensing, Kelly Moriarity, Matthew Neenan and Meredith Rainey digest and project with sublime authority Elo's strikingly personal contemporary movement vocabulary. It's a phraseology characterized by low parallel lunges, released arms, natural gestures, contact lifts, parallel extensions, crouches, weightedness, impulse initiated movements, and punctuated phrases loaded with details and dynamics. The dancers speak, whisper. Music is by Ligetti Gyorgy, Einsturzende Nebauten, Gustavo Santaolalla, Carl Stamitz and Juan Rodrigo.

The video screen flashes a human landscape -- faces and distorted hands crossing a face.

There's a wonderful section when the dancers form a straight line, making small gestures, changing places, and working in unison. A solo emerges, and then a duet. Elo's remarkable use of forming and moving lines takes me on a journey through the life span of a relationship: solid, crumbling. fragile, focused, determined, splintered, static, and evolving. There's a fabulous moment where the group is standing and Matthew Neenan explodes into an emotional solo. One stunning section ends with the dancers running upstage; backs to the audience, they stop and lower themselves backwards to the floor. Even relationships need down time -- rest.

A female dancer whispers, "I can't stand it" and "It's making me sick" as she draws patterns on the floor. A male dancer replies, "Gone too far." Throughout, Elo weaves many fine partnering moments, fabulously executed -- male-male, female-male, and female-female where aggression, tenderness, confrontation and cool/hot sensuality interface. I hear Neenan state "you can look all you want but you won't find it" as he does an awesome triple attitude turn. Miller comments, "I cut off your face on all the pictures." The screen shows two people sipping a shared ice cream soda through straws. "The View From Over Here" provided Philadelphia audiences with a hauntingly fresh take on contemporary ballet. Kudos to the Fringe for bringing this partnership together and to Pew Charitable Trusts for its support.

....On my way with five minutes to spare to Zone Fringe, an art gallery transformed into an 80-seat intimate space, I encounter the Tutu Fairy with, yeah, tutu and wand bringing wonderness to the crowd. Zone Fringe is packed, sold-out for one of Philadelphia's favorite choreographers, Myra Bazell, with "Quiescence." I'm sitting on the floor. Talented musicians Gloria Justin, Joe Falcey, Tony Smith and Eric Merkle are warming up. The space is white with columns in the center. Head shaven, extremely lean, and sharply defined Myra Bazell warmly welcomes the crowd, noting that some views may be intentionally obstructed. She encourages us to see what we can see. There's a scaffold imbedded into the wall, a Bazell trademark. There's a buzz about this piece and understandably: It boasts a live band, a film and an incredibly strong, fluid, give-all and more troupe of female dancers -- Emily Hubler, Brenda Kunda, Katie McNamara, Rebecca Sloan, Megan Bridge, Heather Mc Ginnis and Jane Gotch.

The astonishing beauty of the opening moment refreshes me like a cool drink on a hot day -- dancers float forward clad initially in white smock dresses, revealing muscled midriffs to sonorous sounds taking the audience to a peaceful place. Their movements are luscious, weighted yet weightless, moving (slowly shifting weight from foot to foot) through the fog and draping languishingly around the poles. Some are speaking -- I can't decipher what. It builds into a film clip (by Bazell and Joel Ludovitch) that reinforces the dream scene -- featuring the same dancers, costumes and moves enhanced by the magic of technology -- Is this a deja vu? Gobo lightning appears, McNamara performs a compelling, quiet, intense solo, with little quirky fragile moves, taking us to a deeper personal space. Is she reawakening? Testing her mortality? Recalling memories? Other dancers appear speaking about butterflies. One says "I remember what it was like to feel my head on my mother's lap." The piece progresses from personal to interpersonal, building to very physical partnering, wild but smooth caring catches and releases to the floor with lots of inverted moves, like straddled handstands that slide back to the floor only to rise for more. The lighting is cool blue.

Puck-like, bare- chested and footed, the tattooed bassist, Eric Merkle, moves to center stage front carrying a captivating one-of-a-kind standup bass. It's not enclosed in wood. It has what looks like an hubcap/speaker attached to it. Merkle unleashes a phenomenal, emotional, lamenting solo for bass and voice. He disappears. The film shows a visually arresting sequence of a dancer in white on a tombstone, still yet with her painted hands moving. Others are consoling her, paying her respects. Is it a near-death, post-death experience, or drug-induced ritual?

The scene shifts to another time. Dancers appear in pastel camisole tops, long maroon sarong-like split skirts, and black protective footwear. They fearlessly stomp, run, dive, and attach themselves to the scaffold. The action and sound are rhythmic, relentless. A thrilling moment is when the dancers are hanging (it seems like forever) and the agile daredevil Rebecca Sloan weaves through them. The action becomes dangerously physical as they crash into the walls, floor and scaffold -- never cautiously avoiding the center poles. The action resolves to a resting place. Violinist Gloria Justin solos with pleasing arpeggios. Falcey, Smith, and Merkle join in. The music is full, lilting, inviting. Bazell enters singing, somersaulting through the poles. "Quiescence" ends with Bazell leaning against a pole in a fit of hilarious laughter. Catch it if you can tonight at 8 p.m., at Zone Fringe, 141 S. 2nd Street.

September 2

.... Eric Schoefer, Co-director of Scrap Performance Group, is no newcomer to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. In 1997, he was a co-founder. He created two Fringe hits, "Icarus" and "Strung." Schoefer's newest performance work "Corymb" (one meaning is "flower") occurs deep inside the warehouse space at National Showroom. Just getting there, the audience senses a journey. We are greeted by the smell of incense and by soothing music, before being seated in the round (or should I say square) on hard low gray benches. Ten Scrap performers are walking meditatively around the perimeters of Hiroshi Iwasaki's startling white diaphanous fabric square set (an outer and inner square) with long low trapezes/ropes hanging from the rafters. The fabric is raised and/or lowered by additional ropes as the piece progresses. The music is composed by Yanni Papadapoulos, and played by Peter Wilder, John Papadapoulos, and Rick Iannacone, all placed on a loft structure balcony within the performance arena.

The piece unfolds like a delicate flower or some might say a late bloomer. Gradually, the performers penetrate the inner square. Larger than life size shadows (of the performers) are reflected on the outer square. A performer grabs a trapeze, suspends, spirals, and dismounts. Others roll sensing every pore against the floor as they climb onto the center black square performance space. Somehow, I feel as though I'm back in the seventies at a fabulous loft contact dance jam. "Corymb" appears to be constructed to encourage individual choices based on release technique, and improvisation. The audience likewise can select what to see, or whom to follow. I'm torn: Do I look at what's immediately in front of me? Bypass the view to watch the couple in the back, rolling on top of one another like waves? Or focus on the woman deliciously suspended from a rope? The performers are so committed, focused, and aware, it's pleasurable. I get into how they reach for the ropes and the shapes they make; i.e., Cypher Zero loves to hang upside down and has a primal quality, while Katharine Livingston places her foot into the trapeze and moves away from it -- sometimes softly, other times slicing it. I suddenly notice there is sand along the edges and wonder how it feels to be rolling or landing in it when the performers dismount.

There are moments of intense tenderness, a look, an assisted lift to descend higher on the trapeze/rope, a touch on the chin, a gentle push, and when needed solid support. The tempo builds like a rising storm, Zero (I think) sprints wildly around the space, diving onto a rope and causing a chain reaction of bust-out movement activity. It's riskier teetering on violence. Two or three dancers collect on the same rope/trapeze. There are near misses -- vicious yet sensual spirals, tosses, rolls, flips, twists, pushes and eye-catching sculptures. The energy subsides. The performers gather as if some inner force calls. There is anxious anticipation. From the exit sign, a female dancer enters wearing a long white skirt and long bow in her long hair on stilts. She walks the perimeter, tracing the steps of those before. The stilted dancer gently reaches for the trapeze/rope and begins a fantastic trapeze dance. Her long legs/stilts scrape the floor, wrap around the trapeze. She floats, suspends and then disappears, leaving the audience wanting more. The others return to the square and the curtain lowers.

Scrap Performance Group/Eric Schoefer performs Sept. 5-10 and 12-16 at 8 p.m., at National Warehouse.

September 3

.... Another packed house, the audience sitting cheek-to-cheek in National Warehouse's black box alternative stage for Triple Bill, an intriguing mix of modern dance, hip-hop performance art and Middle Eastern dancing.

Megan Bridge, a recent SUNY Purchase grad, opens the program with her debut of "Situation," a delicate abstract modern based work to a lush layered score of kids' voices, squeaky toy sounds, circus-like music and pulsing rhythms composed by Peter Price. I'm moved by Bridge's courage, confident balances, long swooping legs, and extensive use of stage space. I get tired of the entrance/exit motif and would like to see it move out of academia and into life. Radically different, "Beautiful Human Lies," choreographed by hip-hop master Rennie Harris, confronts Bridge's hip-hop search. The sound score contains a powerful dialogue in which Harris questions/interrogates Bridge's intent and preconceptions while crossing social, political, gender and race lines. Bridge commands her position (on tape and in Harris's dance) with aplomb, passion and naked honesty. Wearing a baseball cap, sweat shirt and pants, barefooted (Bridge doesn't relinquish her modern roots) she deliciously stomps out Harris's dance with joy and bravura. I admire the way she allows herself to go there.

Standout Harris dancer Rodney Zoe Mason explodes onto the stage in his two part tour-de-force "Origins of Man." He rants, raves, seduces, walks in circles on his hands, slams his body into the floor from precarious breathtaking balances. Mason dishes it out in any form he can -- a monologue, a dialogue about his family in South Philadelphia, a hip-hop dance, an aerobic dance to keep in shape less he die from heart disease -- Mason honors his roots and Harris. He pushes every button on the emotional chart, giving the audience no choice but to go there with him. There's mean-ass talking about "pussy" and "fucking," juxtaposed with sharing moments about taking care of his grandparents and questioning will he live to be 21. I love his standup comic routine -- a play on words about genes (jeans) versus khakis and the moonwalk (as he educates the audience with the moonwalk, AKA the back slide), a leap forward for mankind. Like a wizard, he brings it back home to the stage, pushing the limits of what is real. Mason is a force to be reckoned with -- singer, rapper, poet, dancer, comic, actor, a 100% 21st century vaudevillian.

Ying-yang -- what a concert! And here's Tribal Bellydance. I am aroused by each artist's stance and subtext. Tribal Bellydance director Fleur Frascella thinks that Middle Eastern dancing deserves "a more sensitive presentation than it currently receives in clubs and restaurants." In "Migration," four women enter in rich, colorful costumes -- skirts layered with rhythmic tasseled dance belts, midriff tops, and wrapped headdresses. Tattooed bellies of various sizes are exposed. They pick up fabric from a pile to uncover Frascella, who performs an undulating, riveting and surprisingly cool solo, balancing a sword on her head. Closing the program, Tribal Bellydance returns with "Sota," a rhythmic ensemble work, with music by Gypsophilia, consisting of hip rolls, luscious back-bending solos, undulations, fabulous wrist circles, shimmies and circular formations. I'm struck by how unerotic it is. Perhaps, in this gym culture age, an exposed middle is BAU (Business As Usual).

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival continues through September 16 in venues around town.


Anne-Marie Mulgrew is the director of Anne-Marie Mulgrew and Dancers Co. She was the dance editor of Main Times magazine.

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