A rising star of dance

Philly Fringe 2021: Kyle Marshall Choreography presents Stellar/Rise

3 minute read
Four dancers move on a blue-lit stage wearing loose white garments with yellow and orange color from the knees to the ankles
The company of Kyle Marshall’s ‘Rise.’ (Photo by Pauline St. Denis.)

In the vision of dancer/choreographer Kyle Marshall, the dancing body represents a “container of history” offering opportunities for celebrating as well as reflecting on the need for change. A Rutgers graduate who began performing as a child at Philly’s Freedom Theatre, Marshall dances with Trisha Brown Dance Company as well as his dance company, Kyle Marshall Choreography (KMC). Stellar/Rise draws from traditions in the Black church, club music and dance, and Afrofuturism, echoing and building upon the innovations of Alvin Ailey, Rennie Harris, and others.

Stellar on film

The program began with Stellar, a dance commissioned by the Baryshnikov Arts Center and filmed in its Jerome Robbins Theater in March 2021. Described as a dance of speculative fiction, the work initially developed in virtual improvisation sessions during quarantine. Marshall performed in the film along with Bree Breeden and Ariana Speight. Kwami Winfield joined them performing original sound, and Tatyana Tenenbaum filmed Stellar.

The movement is too abstract to clearly convey its jazz and Afrofuturism influences, but the sound, costumes, lighting, makeup, and camera effects lend surreal, dystopian, and otherworldly qualities. The dancers formed moving tableaux, seeming to catch movement and stillness from one another and Winfield’s ever-changing soundscape. At times the dancers added to the sound, as when Breeden, Marshall, and Speight stomped gentle percussion with their bare feet and clapped hands to their own beat.

Moments like these evoked traditions in African dance and music, and sounds of electronic reverberation and a dissonant keyboard helped them coalesce into something unique and special. Futuristic, gender-neutral costumes and makeup by Malcolm-x Betts and Edo Tastic, respectively, establish that Stellar is set in a world different from our own. (Ever notice that in science-fiction writing, movies, and films, aliens aren’t as concerned about gender as humans are?) Betts’s suits, which resemble cut-off, graffitied sweats, particularly suggested the dystopian future ravaged by drug epidemics, raging fires, and poverty portrayed in Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel The Parable of the Sower, which Marshall mentioned in the postperformance Q&A.

Rise on stage

Rise countered this by honoring renewal and optimism. Commissioned in 2021 and performed live on the FringeArts stage, it addresses the joy of dancing as inspired by the shout tradition of the Black church and the transcendent potential of club music. Rejecting the isolation of the pandemic, the piece affirms the power of shared humanity and the sacredness of gathering with others. It begins with Marshall, lying supine alone on stage, seeming to reanimate, as if invisible strings pull his limbs. Breeden, Speight, and Jose Lapaz-Rodriguez joined Marshall in moving to original music, performed live by Cal Fish, who wore the same outfit as the dancers (Rise costumes by Russell A. Peguero), as well as sharing Tastic’s makeup. The music was so interesting it sometimes drew my eyes away from the dancing.

Marshall’s choreography shone in Rise as variations in tempo, level, and formation created visual appeal. A fast-paced, synchronized section with all four dancers was a highlight, as was a later sequence in which the dancers moved in a circle before transitioning into kicking leaps and jumping pliés. Repeated gestures enhanced the movement’s expression and harnessed emotion, from the birdlike flapping of arms to beseeching outreached hands. These culminated in the final moments of Rise, in which the dancers seamlessly blended gestures of gratitude—raising their arms, placing their hands on their hearts, and dropping to their knees—with taking their bows.

Together, Stellar/Rise offered moments of striking images and joyful moments set to hypnotic music that identify KMC as a company to watch, guided by Marshall’s rising talent.

What, When, Where

Stellar/Rise. Choreography by Kyle Marshall. Kyle Marshall Choreography; presented as part of the Philadelphia Fringe. $35. September 24-25, 2021, at FringeArts, 140 North Columbus Blvd. (215) 413-1318 or FringeArts.com.

Proof of vaccination was required to attend this event, and attendees had to wear masks for the duration of the performance.


FringeArts is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Additional information about accessibility services can be found on its website.

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