Before the start of Julia Brandenberger’s highly participatory solo Philly Fringe show Funeral for Expectations, Brandenberger stood on the sidewalk ringing a bell and jubilantly calling on the public to join a funeral, as if she was advertising fresh popcorn.
The incredulous passersby on this city thoroughfare lined with stately funeral homes were audible to the audience inside the lobby at Headlong Dance Theater. They’d never heard anything like Brandenberger’s invitation, and they hurried on by.
We waited in a fittingly awkward silence in the studio’s basement lounge. Accessorized with a few black tablecloths and a hospitable array of cookies and coffee, a funeral-style sign on a tripod announced that the gathering was “In Loving Memory” of Expectations. We all removed our shoes.
Brandenberger approaches her art from a background of dance and theology, which she melds into a “Rogue Theology” because it’s “wild, unique, and full of life in such a way that it juts out from shared expectations.”
In black leggings and a voluminous Victorian-style black top, she ushered us into the dark studio in small groups. The funeral featured the artist wearing a ghoulish white sheet, walking solemn circles around an old hatbox, and lots of standing against the wall — all lit entirely by a motley assortment of burning candles.
Through a combination of speech and athletic yet intimate dance interludes in the faint light, Brandenberger exorcised expectations of her own, including struggles with body image, toxic judgements, and worries about others. A pointe shoe, an item of clothing, a ball, and a battered magazine were the touchstones of her musings on “emptiness, sorrow, fear, and anger.”
Later, she donned a sheet cinched around her waist like a Halloween costume and spoke at length into a novelty voice-changer shaped like a tiny megaphone. She enumerated all the reasons someone would be permitted to leave her. These included blaming someone else for her shortcomings or refusing to accept someone for who they actually were.
She invited the audience to circle the hatbox on the floor, voice an expectation from our own lives, and put it to rest by lighting a small candle and placing it inside the box. Participants entered fully into the spirit of the show, confiding things like the desire to shed a sense of responsibility for other people’s emotions or to balance expectations of good things with the reality that challenges are part of life, too.
The sheet wasn’t just a costume piece. Brandenberger also used it to gather up the four talismans of her expectations and make a bundle of them, personifying them as a faintly funny yet sinister body in themselves. In a wild and breathless display, she repeatedly slammed the figure into the ground in grief and rage. But to close the performance, her movement evolved to cradle the bundle like a baby, and finally to dance a sort of duet with it while two audience members improvised a jangle of handheld bells.
It’s an apt way of saying that for good or ill, expectations are always going to take up space in our lives. Over time, we just have to find the best way to live with them.