A South Philly fantasia

Leah Stein Dance Com­pa­ny presents its final 2018 Stu­dio Works

4 minute read
From left to right: Christina Gesualdi, Ama Gora, and Andrew Mars of Settled Arrows. (Image courtesy of the artists.)
From left to right: Christina Gesualdi, Ama Gora, and Andrew Mars of Settled Arrows. (Image courtesy of the artists.)

Leah Stein Dance Company’s Studio Works showcase pieces in development from local artists who blend movement with theater, music, and visual arts. The series presents fresh, contemporary performances in the informal, intimate setting of a former art classroom at Our Lady of Mount Carmel school building. How intimate? I took a seat next to one of the performers.

The final 2018 Studio Works performance featured new, strange, and beautiful pieces from Christina Gesualdi, Ama Gora, and Settled Arrows. Gesualdi and Gora presented conceptual movement-based works, while Settled Arrows — the genre-defying music project of Andrew Mars — performed works of sound.

Mountains of Lower Moyamensing

Gesualdi’s solo examined spaces, places, and status, raising topical, even prescient questions particularly well suited to a repurposed Catholic-school classroom in a neighborhood poised for gentrification. This piece interwove sound, art, movement, objects, and elements of metatheater, which calls attention to the artificiality of performance. Gesualdi asked the audience to move to the windows and imagine seeing a pastoral landscape instead of Third Street. Not just any landscape, though: Thomas Cole’s 1839 painting A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains. Two voices discussed this painting in an NPR clip that played several times at the beginning of Gesauldi’s performance.

Gesualdi's thought-provoking work juxtaposed the Met with the Art Room Studio (LSDC’s home base) and Cole’s painted mountain pass with the real streets of South Philly (or “Lower Moyamensing”). Sections utilizing movement and props were less cohesive. Gesauldi swayed with increasing momentum on a wooden board, holding a shovel and uttering words and phrases. It was hard to see the connection to the Cole painting and the view out the window.

Singing, speaking, silence, breath

Place also featured in Gora’s piece, in which three dancers performed to a cappella singing, followed by spoken word, then silence. The female trio suggested both independence and interdependence as they moved individually and together, reaching away from and toward one another and melting together to the floor. Two dancers reinforced this theme when they enveloped the third in a comforting embrace after a solo containing gestures of violence and self-harm.

The final vignette, performed partly in unison, was most striking. Here, the dancers’ breath provided the only sound as they raised their index fingers to the sky, spun, and stomped. Movement drew upon African dance, classical ballet, and modern dance to create something interesting and new. Gora’s dance evoked pain and comfort, and in the informal postshow discussion she shared experiences and tragedies that inspired the work. Her explanation, and her sincere interest in the audience’s interpretations of what they saw, were an unexpected bonus.

If this plant could sing… (Photo by Stan Shebs, via Wikimedia Commons.)
If this plant could sing… (Photo by Stan Shebs, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The deer and the plant

We could tell something different was in store when Mars and the Settled Arrows performers began setting up their instruments. These included a harp, two cellos, a drum, a cellphone, and another, less familiar gadget. The four songs performed comprise part of the new Settled Arrows album, Nectar, which Mars described as “modern Taoism through pop.”

The first song hit philosophical and mainstream notes with lyrics about a full heart and an empty head, which Mars (who has composed for BalletX) delivered with impressive vocal range. The next song was more melodic, with haunting strings and images of nature in the vocals.

Mars prefaced the third song with a story about leaping stags that nearly trampled him while he was hiking alone in the dark. He called the song an ode to that experience, with raindrop-like pluckings of the harp, staccato cello notes, and drumbeats like the pounding of hooves.

The last song featured the mysterious gadget: a Midi Sprout, which claims to translate plant biodata into music. When attached to the Art Room Studio’s aloe plant, the Midi Sprout delivered a gentle, pleasant audio tone evocative of a massage therapist’s office. Settled Arrows accompanied the aloe plant, which provided a kind of aural setting for the song. Its steady background presence was sometimes engulfed in the wavelike cello or overshadowed by Mars’s pleasantly elliptical lyrics, but these faded away so that the piece ended with the plant’s atmospheric sound.

A December refuge

Settled Arrows, Christina Gesualdi, and Ama Gora provided a welcome diversion from December’s holiday frenzy — as well as from the chill in the second-floor venue, where radiators produced more noise than heat. Yet the chalkboards lining the Art Room Studio walls were charming, and the community of artists and art lovers inside filled the space with movement, sound, ideas, and emotions. Before the program began, Leah Stein aptly characterized Studio Works as a home for dance and the community. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weeknight in South Philly.

What, When, Where

Studio Works. Choreography by Christina Gesualdi and Ama Gora; music by Andrew Mars and Settled Arrows. Leah Stein Dance Company. December 10, 2018, at the Art Room Studio, 2329 S. 3rd Street, Philadelphia. (610) 526-5210 or leahsteindanceco.org.

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