FringeArts presents ‘Sp3’ by <fidget>

Dancing in digital and analog

Sp3 stands for "space, pulse, pattern, and presence." It’s also the title of a new work by <fidget>, a Philadelphia-based platform for performances that incorporates movement, sound, and visual design. 

One dancer performed the facial expressions of a Maori Haka. (Photo by Bill Hebert

Sp3 combines all three to consider the relationship between the body and technology. Its provocative physical imagery, visuals, music, and dance offer a kind of biological commentary on posthumanism.

A team of artists worked together to create Sp3, and its ethos of communal creation delivers the piece’s first challenge to 21st-century alienation. <fidget> is inherently collaborative. Choreographer Megan Bridge and composer/video artist Peter Price together create experimental works with ensemble members brought in for each project. Price served as lead artist for Sp3, and Bridge choreographed in collaboration with dancers Marie Brown, Ann-Marie Gover, Megan Wilson Stern, Kat Sullivan, and Zornitsa Stoyanova.

A new language

If ballet is air, modern dance is earth. Twenty-first-century works such as Sp3 work build on traditional dance languages to develop a new dance vocabulary. They convey the experiences of a world that existing dance forms can’t otherwise express.

As the house lights dimmed before Sp3 began, a voice in the audience called out, “Buckle up!”  Sp3 was not so wild a ride, but it was like hearing a different language for the first time.

The performance began with two dancers, Bridge and Stoyanova, standing in spotlight, facing the audience, holding hands. For several moments their bodies were still, faces expressionless, until Stoyanova stuck out her tongue as if performing a Maori Haka. Next, a second pair of dancers were illuminated kneeling on the floor. Initially they seemed motionless, but they were subtly pulsing muscles in their arms in time to clanking sounds and a mechanical hum.

Patricia Dominguez's costumes blend the human and machine. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)
Patricia Dominguez's costumes blend the human and machine. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

Later, dancers at the back of the stage repeated a series of movements in which they undulated their arms, shoulders, and hips in sync. A duo sat on the floor back to back, moving like a human metronome in time to the music. Together they jerked to one side and then the other. One dancer’s torso would fall forward onto her lap, while the other’s leaned backward on top of her, and then they switched.

The dance blended natural movements (swooping arms), with mechanical ones (the metronome duet). Yet even the more flowing phrases invoked the automaton, such as when three dancers in unison moved their arms over their faces and down across their bodies, then joined hands and slowly stepped together.

Particularly in this section, Sp3  raised questions about whether individual dancers represent a single unit or different parts of the same machine (or body). These questions are timely and echo contemporary topics in news and popular entertainment.

Pay attention

Patricia Dominguez’s costumes contributed to Sp3’s visual representation of the tensions between self and other, natural and artificial, human and machine. In combinations of black and metallic fabrics, they recalled shiny robots and metal tools.

The color scheme provided unity as well as individuality. Each dancer’s costume was unique. For instance, Bridge wore pants and a sleeveless top, Gover wore gold leggings, and Stoyanova wore a metallic skirt, while Brown’s tunic resembled a black shirt and metallic skirt sewn together.

Put down the phone; be with each other. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)
Put down the phone; be with each other. (Photo by Bill Hebert.)

The strongest sections of Sp3 made use of the whole ensemble, filling the stage with movement. In moments like these, dancers moved in constantly shifting, visually interesting patterns. A circular walk around the stage added grapevine steps, turns, and skips. Two groups moved diagonally like surging tides, each chassé and jazz pirouette-like jump propelling them from one corner to the other. Gestures and combinations recurred throughout, including robotic hands and that protruding tongue.

Sp3 was less engaging at slower moments, which usually coincided with the presence of just one or two dancers. I liked least a dimly lit section featuring two topless dancers with black lines painted from their foreheads to the tops of their pants, like a seam.

They took turns waving their bodies in a pattern at first gently, then gaining in strength like seaweed in a stormy ocean or an electronic device becoming fully charged. However, these movements mostly suggested a flailing inflatable balloon at a car dealership.

But perhaps I didn’t enjoy this section of Sp3 precisely because of the challenges it poses to the way many people in the digital age, myself included, move mindlessly through our days. The pauses are uncomfortable reminders of how the technology that makes our lives easier and keeps us connected actually drives people apart and alienates us from our own bodies.

<fidget> suggests that simply being with ourselves and with each other can be powerful as well as political, since this rejects the complacency of disconnected, thoughtlessness, and automatic behavior. Sp3 provides a unique opportunity to be together and explore topical issues through multimedia dance theater.

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