Lorin Lyle and Heather Murphy in Headlong Dance Theater’s Subirdia.
Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy Headlong Dance Theater
The Wilma Theater
The Avenue of the Arts
January 9?27, 2002
Reviewed by Lewis Whittington
Philadelphia’s independent dance community has always transcended its stodgy theatrical climate; in recent years, it has produced singular choreographic and dance artistry. And in January, the first-ever DanceBoom! Festival enjoyed a three-week, mostly sold-out run of five dance programs representing several styles. The festival was the artistic vision of curator Nick Stuccio, impresario of the dance-heavy Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and Wilma Theater co-directors Blanka and Jiri Zizka, who built their theater a few years ago with a sprung floor and are starting to present dance programs several times a year.
The first night was a choreographers’ program called “Seven,” a grab bag from dancemakers connected with some of the participating groups. Unfortunately, this was not a cohesive bill overall and several of the entries were weak. There were surprises, though, like Brian Sanders’s accessible, technically flawless, and thrilling comic dance turns. Sanders, in a hammock for Swingshot, set to the Swingle Singers’s vocalese of Bach, had the acrobatic Sanders levitating in hilarious ways; for Maestro, the dancer (in a Beethoven fright wig) sprang up on a conductor’s stand like a puppet and careened off balance as he feverishly conducted Vivaldi.
But studied offerings from choreographer/dancers Jean Ruddy and Leah Stein veered toward tedium. Ruddy’s autobiographical solo Significant Soil, about facing a life-threatening illness, which she danced poignantly in its premiere on this stage two years ago, she danced in a skittish revival here. Stein’s Fresh Eggs solo, a meditation on fertility (involving egg-rolling and such) was a cynical, if daring, offering. The choreography of the late E. Leon Evans II, whose work was presented by Eleone Dance Theater, was also uneven, though the mix of African and modern dance narrative technique produced beautiful moments.
Rebecca Sloan’s Do No Evil was a clever drama about intrusions of modern life, but it looked unfinished. Nichole Canuso’s beguiling The Faulty Lens teased and flirted with the audience, using deceptively simple patterns built around two male/female couples. Canuso and David Brick engaged in an antagonistic duet with drop rolls, crouched lifts, and intimate holds, suggesting a couple in troubled love. And Robert F. Burden Jr.’s Origins of Tap was as sloppy in its execution as it was winning in its insistence exuberance.
The next night brought Headlong Dance Theater, which has a cult following in Philly, with their premiere, Gracelessness. The curtain came up on an abstract landscape, with seemingly lifeless dancers strewn about on top of and behind out-proportioned, larger-than-life props, including an aquarium that dancers occasionally dove into. Choreographed by the cast?Nichole Canuso, Niki Cousineau, Christy Lee, Heather Murphy, and Andrew Simonet?the agitated patterns evolved into a primal movement journey as dramatic and disturbing as a Salvador Dali painting. Another premiere, Subirdia, was a garden-variety comedy. The “birds” were two couples and a flirty single, nesting next to each other in a Cheever-esque ’60s neighborhood.
Paule Turner’s incandescent alter ego, Duchess, who’s been lurking around the independent dance scene in Philadelphia for years, has never been more powerful than as the title character of Medea: Love Is The Devil, staged here as a forty-five-minute excerpt of the Turner’s two-hour ballet. Turner used Eleanor Wilner’s translation in a dazzling retelling of Euripides’s tale of betrayal, obsession, and infanticide. It unfolded in a harrowing fetishistic landscape of industrial scaffolding, a paramilitary costumed ensemble of dancers, and a bare-chested rock quartet, Bezerker’s Happy Hour. The group’s stabbing, explosive riffs and Turner’s possessed performance were a brilliant blend of music, text, and choreography.
Turner shared a bill, widely considered the festival’s red-hot ticket, with Phrenic New Ballet. Phrenic’s Frequencies, set to a sound montage ranging from New Age to classical, showcased choreographer Matthew Neenan’s quirky and fantastical phrases, flowing interplays between modern and classical dance. The piece addressed myth, spirituality, and the joy of unbridled movement. The seven dancers posed and floated like cherubs when they weren’t dancing flashy virtuosic solos. This latest work from Neenan avoids predictable patterns from either classical or modern idioms?his vision for Phrenic as a modern classical dance company is fully realized in this ethereal work.
Group Motion Company, established in Philadelphia in the ’60s by director Manfred Fischbeck, performed on a double bill with SCRAP Performance Group. Both groups represent the vanguard of experimental and conceptual dance in the region. Group Motion Company premiered The Hiding Owl, a hypnotic movement elegy to a dying soul, based on a Yiorgos Skotinos painting from his series “Protest Against War and Violence.” A dying David Konyk floated in and out of consciousness as Megan Bridge and Emily Hubler and a spirit (Katie McNamara, who hovered above to escort him to another place) attended to him. Konyk launched into a pulsing piece full of knee slides, clean one-handed backflips, and rhythmic tension in the following solo, Small.
Eric Schoefer’s On was a baffling hip-hop, B-boy demonstration, with dancers Karriem Hassan and Eric Mclaurin sliding, careening, and bounding over a table. Schoefer had previously choreographed large works for SCRAP, such as his epic Icarus, which had to be staged in a large warehouse. Recently, he has been experimenting with scaled-down solos, but his choreographic hand was invisible here.
Katharine Livingston, sporting electrocuted hair and a mod-era lounge jumpsuit, performed “Open Circuit (the nervous system speaks),” a jarring excerpt from her work-in-progress, Theater of the Body. Taken out of context, Livingston’s “dance” of the nervous system was a one-note variation on isometric shaking. Laughing in Brackish Waters, with live accompaniment from a string and percussion trio and the work’s singing choreographer, Myra Bazell, created a “happening” atmosphere, with eight women circling around each other like they were cruising on a dance floor, then bursting into simple patterns that suddenly turned aggressive, suggesting emotional turmoil.
A mini-scandal erupted around the artistic integrity of Flamenco Olé! The popular group was the only one that was trounced in the mainstream press for being amateurish. Co-founder and Artistic Director Julia Lopez contended that the attack was personal and that the quality of their performances was not dramatically different from the others. Audiences didn’t take the criticism too seriously, and theirs was the only company to add a performance due to heavy ticket demands. On balance, this event was a success, with overall sales in the 90 percent range, and there are already plans to do it again next year according to Naomi Grabel, managing director of the Wilma Theater.