Alie Vidich's "Invisible River'

Just when you thought you'd seen everything

The crowd gasped: Vidich and Hoffman slice into the water.
The crowd gasped: Vidich and Hoffman slice into the water.

The emerging choreographer with the most moxie in Philadelphia must be Alie Vidich, a 28-year old artist who takes on almost insurmountable challenges in creating site-specific performance with her dance/theater group, the Movement Brigade.

In the summer of 2011 Vidich led a nighttime audiences in canoes onto the darkened, hurricane-swollen waters of the Schuylkill River in a dance and theater adventure that captured the river's past through vignettes of an escaped slave, the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s, the Delaware Native American presence and the re-emergence of the shad fish. (Click here for my review.)

This month Vidich is producing the first aerial dance over the Schuylkill in a new collaborative work, Invisible River, which faced obstacles that few artists are trained to address.

Battling bureaucracies

For one thing, I can personally attest that Fairmount Park officials had demanded $24,000 in permit fees for Vidich's free, public performances by her non-profit group. The fee was reduced, shortly before the performances, to $2,000 with a small assist from this writer; but as a result, four planned performances had to be cut to two, and Vidich was forced to forgo any payment to herself for her year's work. And although Vidich obtained what she thought were the three permits from different government agencies overseeing the river, the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and the Fairmount Park land, a fourth claiming its bureaucratic turf— the City's Managing Director's Office— brought in the city's Highway Patrol and the Marine Division police to cancel the troupe's aerial dance dress rehearsal and almost shut down all performances.

Despite these challenges, several hundred spectators gathered Sunday evening on the east side of the Schuylkill, near the St. Joseph's University Boathouse and before the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, some picnicking, all catching a setting sun across the river, trailing streams of pink and grey over the park's tree line.

Suddenly, loudspeakers erupted with the ethereal vocalizing sounds created by Elliot Harvey (of the musical group a stick and a stone). As one looked upward into the Erector Set bridgework and the sweeping underside arcs of the bridge, these sounds gave voice to the Strawberry Mansion Bridge itself, animating the inanimate. Nine dancer/singers in white began a dance of pedestrian movement and circular swings. Then a gasp arose from the audience as we caught sight of two bodies— Vidich and her equally fearless partner Evan Hoffman— leaping out of the bridge's framework, 65 feet above the river, into a sweeping arc that mirrored the arch above them.

Into the river

As the crowd watched in amazement, Vidich and Hoffman began their aerial duet by propelling from each other, creating geometric configurations with their bodies, twirling, or simply joining hands or feet in blissful stasis. Slowly their dance descended, until they paused as if standing on the waters. Then they plunged into the Schuylkill to swim ashore and join their fellow dancers.

As I said, Vidich dreams big. Her plan— public and private donors willing— is to inaugurate a Schuylkill River arts festival to celebrate the river and park as well as the joys of an urban life linked to our natural environment. Vidich says she wants her future festival audiences to be able to swim in the waters as she and those shad have begun to do again. Are you ready?

(Second and last free performance took place on Sunday, June 23.)


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