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Walking into the Icebox Project Space this weekend, I didn’t fully know what to expect from The Other Gardeners, a Philly Fringe offering from Very Good Dance Theatre, a collaborative collective of queer-led, BIPOC-centered artists who “play with the ideas of what is dance, what is theatre, and what is ‘good.'” Intrigued by a show that promises to explore perspectives around lineage, diaspora, and liberation, I wondered how the performance would consider those concepts while set in the Garden of Eden and from a queer perspective. Gardeners delivered on everything and left me with a little more.
When the doors opened to the performance space, I noticed Colby Calhoun and Micah Lat (each credited as authoring performer and collaborator) already on stage, nude save for pointe ballet shoes and goggle-like spectacles with furry red frames. The stage, a low platform, was surrounded by a few standalone stage lights and lined with cardboard-cutout grass and faux baby’s breath flowers. Calhoun and Lat meandered, moving from standing, to sitting at a desk, to sitting at a solitary chair at center stage, to intermittently speaking quietly to one another.
An unexpected beginning
I didn't realize the show had begun when Calhoun began talking to someone I assumed was a producer. Calhoun was explaining something to them in an animated way, before handing them a mic. The person began to reticently introduce the show, and Calhoun asked for the mic back. Moving on, Calhoun chose others from the audience one by one to approach the platform and present the show. Affects ranged from restrained to uninhibited; the criteria seemed to be matching Calhoun’s animated nature.
Finally, they chose someone, but asked them to wait and “get ready.” We all waited in silence. Suddenly a projection of text lit up the wall behind the platform, scrolling just slightly too fast, alluding to everything from Bible verses to pop-culture references. At the same time, Calhoun and Lat performed a choreographed blend of ballet and modern dance with wide smiles, impressively in sync with the words being read despite some skipped segments and stammering from the reader.
Calhoun and Lat hit several beautiful pirouettes and jumps, drawing oohs and ahs from the audience. But their clear technical skill combines with an unapologetic and carefree feeling, emphasized by their nudity, evoking Eden with movement that feels blissful, innocent, and free.
In and out of the garden
Between dances, they engage in quiet conversations that lead to close embraces, flirtation, bickering, and wrestling around on the ground. They swap turns singing Whitney Houston and Billie Eilish as the other progresses through their own movements and dance. The imagery projected onto the wall behind the platform cycle through jungle flora, tropical wildlife, and other greenery.
Then Lat, wearing an oversized blazer and with a drawn finger mustache held to their face, dances diagonally down the stage. Calhoun meets them at the front and suddenly pushes Lat down. As Lat tries to get up, Calhoun pushes them down again and again as Lat begs Calhoun to stop. In a show featuring two queer performers, this was a somber reminder of the violence the queer community faces—a stark departure from all the joys of the garden.
The night also brings neon wigs, The Sims 4, Beyoncé, and a skit featuring two pretentious theater directors. But the performers’ monologues are a highlight—Calhoun’s is particularly moving. In front of a projected recording of Fix Me, Jesus by the Alvin Ailey ensemble, Calhoun expresses longing for the opportunity to choose the body, the life, they were given. Admiring lead dancer April Berry, Calhoun mirrors her movements as they speak on appreciating her beauty. Almost brought to tears, Calhoun asserts they’d still choose their life—the one where, in front of an audience at Icebox Project Space, they get freedom, connection, community.
Know before you go: The Other Gardeners features large sections of full nudity and mentions of anti-Blackness and violence against queer and trans people.
Above: Colby Calhoun and Micah Lat in Very Good Dance Theatre's The Other Gardeners. (Image courtesy of the artists.)
What, When, Where
The Other Gardeners. By Colby Calhoun and Micah Lat. Very Good Dance Theatre. $25. Through September 25, 2023, at Icebox Project Space, 1400 North American Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
The Icebox Project Space is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Masks are required for all performances of The Other Gardeners.
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