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Right from the start, choreographer Susan Marshall and set designer Mimi Lien, both internationally renowned, developed the immersive dance installation Rhythm Bath with input from neurodiverse advisors: it’s coproduced by Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities. This soft, other-worldly experience welcomes people of all sensory stripes. But its creators’ fame and its cultural inclusiveness are not its only signatures. Rhythm Bath invites all of us to notice and make decisions about details that might usually pass under our radar.
Enter the performance space, and you can choose a rigid, wheeled chair at center. Attendees are invited to move around, experiencing the action from all angles, and we can do so from different eye levels—walking or seated. Other chairs, along the edges, are cushioned pods that envelop us in silky white fabric. We can also explore the stage “wing”, separated from the main space by a translucent scrim. Ten dancers gradually walk in, but overhead there’s a lot to compete for our attention. Lights glow from behind a billowy white canopy with cutouts like portholes to heaven. Now these reveal layers of textured, crumpled fabric. Over the course of the performance, Jeanette Yew’s light design will sometimes shine brightly through them, sometimes dim like passing clouds. Later, tangles of sparkling lights will emerge.
Lights, texture, action: as the dance proceeds, various numbers of dancers (10 in all, dressed in blue for the performance) populate the space. Sometimes they scatter widely, so the room feels vast. Sometimes, if two or three happen to cluster near you—maybe right behind you—the space feels dense. The program includes a “sensory timeline,” which shows how the intensity of the dancing and the sound, mostly ambient with bursts of rhythm, will vary over the course of nine sections. Knowing what to expect can help neurodiverse attendees. And seeing the energy “scheme” also shows us that there will be no electric opening number and no rousing finale: the performance will build to peak action in the middle and then calmly dissipate.
Marshall is known for crafting simple movement and everyday gesture into evocative dance, and we see that immediately. The dancers walk in place, but instead of swinging the opposite arm—what we usually do, for balance—they extend the same arm and foot. That small alteration leads to grand, lovely sweeps of the arm. Then, stop-action: Crossed legs interrupt, upright torsos bow forward. Dancers stand in wide fourth position: turned out legs, one front and one back, blocking out little rectangles. They sharply cut a quarter turn or face a diagonal; sometimes they form partial lines along an imaginary grid—all of which really pops within Lien’s cocoon-like stage. When the dancers all collapse, strike the floor in syncopated rhythms or bob up in high jumps, their perfect unison is exciting because it’s coming from all around us.
What goes on at center stage may draw interest—especially when a single dancer executes a beautiful series of simple tendus (extending one pointed foot along the floor) with directional changes, rotating like the hands of a sundial. But there is no star of the show: your attention is soon diverted.
This world premiere by Lien and Marshall is a big fish among the mostly local lineup of this year’s Fringe Festival, and tickets to Rhythm Bath quickly sold out online. (To review, I attended a dress rehearsal.) But it’s worth a try. If you are part of the disability community, there may be free tickets available to you, and others can join a waiting list (see below). Rhythm Bath is a sensory delight for all.
What, When, Where
Rhythm Bath. Choreography by Susan Marshall and set design by Mimi Lien. $25. Through September 24, 2023 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N American St, Philadelphia. The installation is open 30 minutes before and after ticketed entry times. All performances are sold out online, but tickets may be available at the door; call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-1318. PhillyFringe.org.
ASL interpretation, audio description, and unlimited use of Aira visual interpretation technology is available. Quiet lounge available. Christ Church Neighborhood House is a wheelchair-accessible venue. A limited number of complimentary tickets are reserved for members of the disability community; contact [email protected]. More info at disabilities.temple.edu/rhythm-bath.
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