At Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish School, in a second-floor classroom without much architectural detail (though we can see the setting sun outside its west window), Leah Stein and violinist Diane Monroe create a twilight meditation. Called Interior, it's part of the South Philly Fringe in a cute little neighborhood. The building also houses other theater companies, including Theater Exile, in exile until its former house is rebuilt.
Well known for dancing on rafters, in windows, and on gargoyles at huge architectural and natural landscape sites, Leah Stein practically invented site-specific dance. She’s a master at it. Many of her works, like her Cornerstone at Benjamin Franklin’s gravesite and her legendary takeovers of Girard College’s Chapel for Carmina Burana, were astounding. She also often collaborates with great U.S. composers such as the late Pauline Oliveros or Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang; Monroe joins her for their fourth collaboration.
Solemnity and surprises
Stein wails from the hallway to Monroe’s human-sounding, keening bowing. Stein enters by grasping her fingers along the doorjamb, as if the room itself pulls her in while she resists. I’ve never been a big fan of improv-based dance, unless done by Simone Forti or Deborah Hay. Fortunately, Stein studied with each and still makes dances this way. It took me years to get why her work was so important.
Watching her in this small space, I saw much of the same dance vocabulary Stein has expressed for the last 25 years. But in this concentrated space, her use of props created metaphors for architecture and nature I don’t think I noticed before. As she fully entered the room, her cupped hands were filled with water she allowed to dribble down into a puddle at her bare feet. She dried it with a small towel, and the scrubbing of the floor became a frenzied dance. She pulled her wet hands down the classroom’s blackboard as if they were paintbrushes.
Stein took a large angled pod from a bookcase that rattled like a rain stick when she placed it on the floor, curving her body and mirroring it. Later, she created what looked like stepping-stones in a wading stream with varicolored t-shirts. Again, she lay down, curving in tandem with them.
Monroe stopped at each “stone,” bowing a different-colored sound just once, until she reached a striped shirt and gave that a riff representing all its colors. She also picked up the pod and tapped it lightly on her strings.
What I assumed was a water bucket in one corner turned out to be filled with multicolored marbles Stein tossed our way. Interior is filled with delightful little inside jokes like this, and by the end, her modern-dance solemnity had given away to a big smile. She’s moved into a happy place, and so had we.
What, When, Where
Interior. Choreographed by Leah Stein, music by Diane Monroe. Leah Stein Dance Company. Through September 22, 2017, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish School Building, 2329 S. Third Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.