"Urban Scuba' at Live Arts/Fringe Festival

Urban survival test, in a swimming pool

Popil: Seductive.
Popil: Seductive.

On the Live Arts Festival's opening night, Brian Sanders's visual assortment of dance theater magic brought the kind of performance energy to the Gershman Y that's been missing there since the '60s, when Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and the Living Theater made the Y an avant garde beachhead in Philadelphia.

That earlier crowd probably wouldn't have chosen the site of the Y's now largely emptied swimming pool, which Sanders chose for his fanciful Urban Scuba, which continues his reputation (built over ten years with Momix) as Philadelphia's most captivating dance theater Imagist. A remarkable cast of performers— John Luna, Lesya Popil, and William Robinson, with Sanders as well— are tested physically through aerial dance and athletic combat with the space they inhabit. Strong contributions by lighting designer Terry Smith and costumes by Sara McCorriston complemented the edginess of the performance.

The audience finds its seats on risers set in the darkened pool area with the faint, aging smell of chlorine and ominous ambient music, all of which adds a sinister and nervous energy to the environment. An introductory scene reinforces the mystery with what might be flying bodies behind a floor-to-ceiling curtain of plastic. Intermittent lighting adds electrical energy to the mystery. At a given moment, bodies and plastic together fall 20 feet to the ground of what we now see as the empty end of a large pool. Harnessed bodies move flowingly on and off the high pool's edge into the abyss below.

Later, with two bicycle wheels attached to a suspended steel rod, two performers swirl around the rod above the pool. A quartet of dancers on the pool's ground with top hats clown in synchronized unison and play, falling backward into the water to close the most funky movement scene of the piece. As a beautiful Lesya Popil, in a long white dress, floats seductively in the water, two performers, with bungee cords attached, swoop down from above on each side to barely connect with the water and Popil when they return instantly to an upward level.

Later, Popil, now wearing a startling black body-fitted costume by Sara McCorriston, imperiously terminates each of the three male performers, who die in a slow-motion descent down the wall of the pool.

The high energy and visual invention of the first half is lost in the remainder of Urban Scuba, where even the best efforts at lighting, use of purple pillow-like floats, and thrashing around in the pool's water fail to generate the first half's excitement and memorable images. When the images lack power and luster in a work where narrative and expressed meaning are largely absent, the scuba tank is running on empty.♦

To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.