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Leah Stein’s ‘Urban Echo’ at Fringe FestivalBY: Jonathan M. Stein 09.23.2008
Urban Echo: Circle Told was perhaps the most transfixing event of Philadelphia’s recent Fringe Festival: a brilliant melding of two different generations of artists who share defining commitments to improvisation, as well as a spiritual connection between their creative souls and their external environments.
Urban Echo: Circle Told. Leah Stein Dance Company and Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Alan Harler, director. Music by Pauline Oliveros. September 6-13, 2008 at the Rotunda, 40th and Walnut Sts. http://www.livearts-fringe.org/details.cfm?id=3136
Singers, dancers, generations: Breaking the city’s boundariesJONATHAN M. STEIN
Perhaps the most inspiring and transfixing of a very solid array of 2008 Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe performances was Urban Echo: Circle Told, the result of an unusual collaboration between Leah Stein and her dance company, Alan Harler directing 60 singers of his Mendelssohn Club, and the great experimental music composer and theorist of the last half-century, Pauline Oliveros.
The setting was the almost surreal classical interior expanse of the octagonal Rotunda building at 40th and Walnut, a 1911 design by Carrere and Hastings, which presented a unique venue for sonic and visual improvisation. This was the same space that Headlong Dance Theater used so imaginatively in its 2007 Festival work, “Explanatorium” to explore the extra-terrestrial and inexplicable.
Harler’s marriage brokering of Stein in her early 40s (and no relation to this writer, although I’ve danced with her in other groups) and Oliveros, in her late 70s, was a brilliant bridging of two different generations of artists who share defining commitments to improvisation as well as a spiritual connection between their creative souls and their external environments. Stein and Oliveros would likely concur in director Peter Sellars’s observation that “Art is about re-energizing spirituality in a secular context.” Thanks to Harler’s gutsy openness to experimentation, the Mendelssohn cohort of 60 classical singers were tossed into the hands of these consummate improvisers of sound and movement.
Moving more than vocal chords
Collaborations of multi-media or multi-genres have been the presenters’ recipe du jour for many years, and often the result is that each art form coexists with the others on stage, but more often than not they remain in their genre silos. A collaboration where art forms are truly integrated is less common. The emotionally powerful times when Urban Echo succeeded occurred when the body and movement, and vocalization and sound, resonated organically among the dancers and singers, with dancers vocalizing at times, and singers moving much more than their vocal chords.
The potential for all the performing artists to express themselves in both voice and physical movement offered up a multiplicity of expressive modes, with the potential for excitement and surprise from performers, which in turn heightened the acuity of the listening and viewing of the audience.
The piece opened invitingly with all the dance and vocalist performers standing separately in the large open space, whispering personal narratives that had some connection to the city, drawing more adventurous audience members to walk quietly among them to hear their stories. One such memorable story was provided by the vocalist and poet Daniel Simpson, who offered his own poem (Acts of Faith) about his blindness, describing his environment in colors and scents ("The yellow sun shines lemonade; that means the sky is blue. I smell the city, oil and brown."). A sharp hand clap of the floor by some dancers ends the section, leading to another in which vocalists lie still on the floor, perhaps experiencing Oliveros’s “deep listening” practice, as they segue into vocalizing activated by duos and trios of dancers moving amidst them.
Not your usual Mendelssohn concert
There was no apparent set musical score or songs, and the vocalists were challenged by having to improvise through vocalizations as well as following novel directions from Oliveros, such as playing the interior architectural space— departures, I assume, from past Mendelssohn Club practice.
I saw Urban Echo on two successive Saturdays, and by the second Saturday performance it was apparent that the singers had found greater confidence and ease in not having to sound so harmonious, so that more guttural sounds (hissing and shushing) and more dissonant sounds were more commonly heard, and with far greater interest. Freed of text and set music, vocalists had the freedom to bypass their habitual vocal patterns as well as “play the space,” a direction Oliveros gave them.
Some vocalists, in an amusing scene, used barking sounds to herd and move others across the floor; at another, all performers “broke ranks” and engaged in equally amusing colloquial banter. At one point, many singers left the building, and siren-like sounds soon came from unseen vocalists on both sides of the building, ambiguously suggesting the sirens of urban alarms. Stein, who has always incorporated vocalization among her dancers in her prior work, developed this practice further in her own dancers amidst this vocalizing feast, adding slaps to the body for other tonal effects.
A serene Doppler effect
Magical scenes occurred when voice and movement of the two groups achieved an organic whole, as when dancers approached, either driftingly or dartingly among standing singers; and as a dancer came close to a singer, the singer emitted a phrase from a chorale or a song or a chord and, photo-tropic like, curved into the direction of the moving dancer whose movement energy had engendered the vocal response. This process started individually— one dancer to one singer— and then multiplied in a polyphony of sound and movement.
In another scene, with vocalists standing across the center space, dancers ran east-west and then reversed, with the vocalizations activated by their running presences and appearing to give motion to the very sounds generated, an effect a friend described as wind chimes in motion or a serene Doppler effect.
A closed circle of singers later gave rise to one singer entering the center to emit a distinctive note or phrase, calling one of the dancers at rest on the floor to engage in a vocal-dance duet. The best of these had Michelle Tantoco pair with an extraordinary soprano, Gabrielle Rosse, and as their animated, improvised duet evolved, with Rosse barely six inches from Tantoco, the singer became possessed of the dancer’s movement as her vocalizations turned into hisses and loud breaths.
Few singers manifested this level of power of movement, with the possible exception of another blind vocalist and poet, Dave Simpson (twin brother of the previously cited Dan). Dave Simpson threw himself into an improvised trio with Jumatatu Poe and Danielle Kinne with an abandon that would have been the envy of contact improv jammers.
Stein’s dance esthetic seeks to materialize flowing energy, and as often as it is contained in lyrical, softened bodies, it is also abruptly cast off back into the environment with slicing or thrusting limbs. Her seasoned company embraces her esthetic, and her dancers add their own individual dynamism to her set dance sections. Her impressive crew included beyond Tantoco, Kinne and Poe, Shavon Norris, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, David Konyk, and Josie Smith. There might have been some times when one could question the need or purpose for some dances, as if the enormity of the space compelled trying to keep it filled with ongoing movement.
From Fairmount Park to Bartram’s Garden
Setting movement on the Mendelssohn vocalists and in the apparently overly short rehearsal time to get them together must have been a particular challenge for Stein. But her career— creating the largest number of site-specific works of any Philadelphia choreographer— has given her ample opportunities to use non-professional dancers in such spots as Fairmount Park, Bartram’s Garden, and along the Manayunk Canal. This past experience undoubtedly contributed to her ability to impart movement to these singers en masse.
Stein’s extraordinarily successful Carmina Burana at Girard College’s Chapel two years ago (which outshone the bravura version offered by the Pennsylvania Ballet of the same year), also gave her an opportunity to impart movement into singers on a smaller scale. Through such devices as “flocking"— followers mirroring the improvised movement of a leader— Stein brought improvised group movement to the singers. A remarkable and perhaps gratuitous aspect of Urban Echo is that it might have been— the Mummers Parades aside— the most intergenerational of movement performances Philadelphia has seen, as the Mendelssohn group of largely middle-aged and older vocalists joined with the younger dance company brought a refreshing multigenerational spin to the performance.
Costuming has rarely been a strength of Leah Stein performances, and the choice here of partial fish net coverings for all dancers and singers served no esthetic purpose and looked markedly inappropriate.
Urban Echo concluded as serenely and focused as it had begun an hour earlier, with all performers massed centrally, emanating a peaceful humming as they as a group slowly turned 360 degrees, then ending with a silence-- savored by an audience that could now better hear and appreciate silences.
One trusts that the Mendelssohn Club will never be the same after this experience. With another Stein-Harler-Mendelssohn Club collaboration to set music of the Pulitzer Prize winning composer, David Lang, in June of 2009, we all can expect further surprises into next year.♦
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