Shortly before 4pm on a bright Saturday afternoon, I stepped off the Route 7 bus at Whitman Plaza and followed the directions of purple-shirted guides to the corner of 5th Street and St. Michaels Drive, where I joined the crowd gathered for a performance of Mariana Arteaga’s Úumbal: Nomadic Choreography for Inhabitants, presented as part of this year’s curated Fringe.
From there, a troupe of about 50 community dancers led us through the streets of South Philadelphia. Sometimes we followed behind them; sometimes they pulled us into the performance, while speakers rolled beside playing the tunes from a metal cart. A dance battle at the corner of 4th and Porter Streets was a highlight. Three breakers from the community showed their moves, followed by a dance-off by the whole troupe. The performance ended with a party at Mifflin Square Park.
Behind the dance
Arteaga created Úumbal: Nomadic with the help of local volunteers who offered steps (you can find them here) and local choreographers, including dancer and Temple University teacher Rhonda Moore. But during a follow-up discussion at Cherry Street Pier on Sunday, Arteaga reminded us that choreography includes more than dance—police also engage in a rehearsed choreography to control the movement of protesters in the street.
Arteaga said that protests in Mexico City in September 2014, following the disappearance of 43 college students, inspired her to created Úumbal. The students had commandeered buses to travel to Mexico City to commemorate earlier student disappearances of 1968 but were, themselves, stopped and murdered en route. Arteaga wanted to engage the spirit of the protests by challenging oppression with a defiant performance of joy. In a Happy Hour podcast that Fringe hosted in June, she cited Hannah Arendt—“Freedom is rehearsed”—and took that as further inspiration. To live differently, she said, we have to rehearse the possibilities, including the possibilities for reclaiming the streets. Úumbal is Mayan for “balance.” Joy is a powerful protest when it is juxtaposed against oppression.
Context and community
Community art as a statement has a tradition at Fringe. In 2018 I attended Le Super Grand Continental on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sitting as it did between that temple of high culture and the pop culture of selfie-snappers at the Rocky statue below, that dance challenged the ownership of the arts with an extravaganza of amateur enthusiasm.
But in the bright sunshine of Philly’s Úumbal premiere, with police cars in their own practiced choreography, benign as they obligingly blocked the traffic, street by street as we passed, it was easy to forget the original meaning of Úumbal. Sometimes, context is everything, and when that changes, the entire meaning of the piece changes with it.
Given our own political moment, it was a shame to lose that part of the experience. But what did Úumbal give us instead? Many of the dancers had participated in Super Grand as well and eagerly talked about the sense of community they developed with their fellow dancers in each project. This sense of communal purpose, and of building a bridge to community with the Whitman neighborhood, dominated the discussion on Sunday.
For Philadelphia, the meaning of Úumbal seemed to turn inward, offering a powerful sense of collaborative creation for participants. It interrogated art in a different way, asking, “who is this for?” Often, at Fringe, the answer is for the creators. We are less an audience demanding a performance, and more a part of their experience, providing our spectatorship for their joy. On a sunny late summer day, that turnabout seemed fair play.
Catch Úumbal again on Friday, September 13 at 7pm, and on Saturday, September 14 at 4pm.
What, When, Where
Úumbal: Nomadic Choreography for Inhabitants. By Mariana Arteaga. Through September 14, 2019. Participants gather on 5th Street between Shunk and Oregon and travel with the dancers. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
This performance requires walking, sometimes briskly, for about one hour. There are no seats and no restrooms on the route. Organizers ask that, as a courtesy to the community, attendees park cars and bicycles at the Whitman Plaza parking lot.