Fringe Festival wrapup: Even the silly stuff is growing up

Fringe festival wrapup

6 minute read
Pillardance: Unexpected stimulation.
Pillardance: Unexpected stimulation.
How the Fringe has changed. While you can still find still quirky little outfits putting together odd bits and pieces and calling it theater or dance or performance art, on the whole the level of accomplishment at the 2010 Live Arts/Fringe Festival greatly exceeded those of the past.

In part this is because of the addition of the Live Arts segment and its carefully selected major performers, who add luster to the entire event while encouraging genuine Fringe participants to ratchet up their efforts into something more than just a quirky little stage event.

Lucinda Childs, then and now

No doubt Lucinda Childs's reconstruction of her 1979 masterpiece, Dance, for Live Arts, was head and shoulders above just about everything else at this year's Festival. Childs is one of the first great minimalist choreographers, working here with experimental music by Phillip Glass, and her stripped-down, buoyant moves are all very simple"“ ballet without the toe shoe or the perfect balance. Childs's dancers moved like living bursts of energy responding to the pulsating Glass score.

Meanwhile, old film footage of the original performance of Dance played over and beside the actual 2010 troupe. As someone who was living in Los Angeles in 1979 and saw Dance in its debut run there, I was struck not only by the retrieval of this important choreography but also by the 1979 footage, with dancers moving on a grid, much like a chessboard.

Childs says she thinks today's dancers are stronger and better trained, but the ghostly forms from 1979 looked rather wonderful, whether dancing overhead or alongside today's dancers.

Performance or meditation?

Other deserving Festival dance offerings didn't always get as much attention. In the on-site performance, Japan House/Philadelphia, creators Leah Stein and Roko Kawai and five other dancers performed at Shofuso, the Japanese House and Garden in West Fairmount Park. Audience members left their shoes outside and either walked around barefoot or wore paper slippers for a program that was as much a meditation as a performance.

The audience moved to four different vistas, viewing different parts of the garden and the house. The actual performers moved very simply, often just using their bodies as directional guides to keep the audience focused on a rock or the garden.

The only accompaniment came from the percussionist, Oshi Makihara, who banged metal together, slapped rocks and beat out rhythm on the wooden deck where the audience sat cross-legged looking into the garden. A very special and choice event.

Pleasant surprise

Meanwhile, Pillardance Company, a troupe and school based in Oakland, New Jersey, gave a really stimulating program at the Performance Garage. The audience, expecting very little, was pleasantly surprised to find this troupe very adept at moving in a quick series of excellent movement sequences, using very intriguing music that ranged from Arvo Part to Slipknot and Fiona Apple. Pillardance closed with an excerpt from its forthcoming full-length holiday show, Nightmare Returns.

Nichole Canuso's Takes didn't get the attention it deserved— just one of many excellent performances, not to mention the eight young choreographers who created eight new works for Live Arts.

Spanish classic, dubious concept

Theater offerings ranged all over the map in terms of quality. The Philadelphia Artists' Collective presented Life is a Dream, a play written in 1636 by Calderon de la Barca in Spain. The Collective is dedicated to the theatrical concept of performing classic works of theater just as they would have been performed in their own era. The Collective believes these great works of art were all performed by individuals reading the words, that written text is what it's all about, and that and only later were sets, costumes and lights and stages added. The play was accompanied by wonderful music contributed from members of Piffaro, the Renaissance Band.

Much as I liked the concept, sometimes the group's very performance theory seemed contradicted by what the actors read, which included not only dialogue (often provoking laughter— a little odd in a play about an imprisoned prince who has been tortured) but also the stage direction. If the original performance really was given outdoors with neither stage nor sets nor costumes, why is there stage direction (e.g., "King moves to his throne"“ exit left")?

Ancient stages can still be found all over Europe, many in Spain. So while the Collective's concept is intriguing, it's a little hard to believe Calderon intended this work to simply be read.

The Collective played Life Is a Dream as a comedy, and certainly there was plenty of laughter from the audience. But did Calderon, writing at the apex of the Spanish Inquisition, intend Dream as a comedy? Color me doubtful.

Holiday musical spoof

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Performance Project put together Week Between the Holidays, a terrific original musical comedy. Every person involved in this production boasts local stage credentials, ranging from Stage Door Productions in Burlington, N.J., to Stagecrafters in Chestnut Hill and Hedgerow in Media, Pa. All this experience coalesced to create a genuinely amusing musical comedy with an original score from Mickey Leone (also executive producer, book writer and songwriter.)

The comedy is one familiar to most everyone. It's the holidays and the kids are home, and everything gets sort of messed up. Then a blizzard hits and everyone is stuck at home, annoying each other. The titles of the original songs tell it all, like How Have You Really Been? and Don't Bring a Date to Christmas. The setting— the parish hall of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill— seemed somehow just right for the subject matter, but probably meant a lot of downtown folks missed it.

Aerial arts disappointment

My biggest disappointment came at the School of Circus Arts in Germantown, where in Fringes past I've watched these aerial artists perform amazing, beautiful feats— flying across the ceiling, hanging from the ceiling by one foot. Insecticide, this year's Fringe offering, sounded like more of the same, only this time flying insects.

Well, wouldn't you know— not content with a good thing and a huge audience, the Circus Arts folks hired a choreographer, who gave the show a concept. This concept included 15 variations, beginning with an overture, moving on to Liturgy, then adding in Hail Mary and the Second Coming and ending with Communion and Absolution.

As for insects, I guess the crouching figures crawling on the floor were ants. One performer ascended into the air with large wings. But for a group calling itself Grounded Aerial, the Circus Arts crew spent way too much time on the floor and not enough up in the air, where they belonged. Said an unhappy little boy behind me to a parent: "How much longer is this going on?"

Good, bad, great, indifferent"“ the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival has morphed into one of the city's great performing institutions"“ great, good, bad and silly, it was better than ever.♦

To read another review of Dance by Jonathan M. Stein, click here.
To read another review of Takes by Steve Cohen, click here.

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