FringeArts Blog

Poetry in the Air: Tangle Movement Arts brings Life Lines to the Fringe

Posted July 26th, 2017

Rebecca Mo Davis in Life Lines

In their seventh consecutive Fringe Festival show, Tangle Movement Arts uses the poetry of aerial dance and acrobatics to express stories of loss. The show is Life Lines, and it blends together circus arts, theater, and live music.  Philadelphia-born Lauren Rile Smith is one of the producers of the show and founders of the company. “Life Lines is a portrait of a community that is recovering from sudden losses,” she says. “It follows the story of three different women who are processing and healing from really unexpected change: one losing a lover, one losing a sense of safety or security, one losing a sense of connection with others.” In line with much of Tangle’s past work, this show is intensely emotional. The artists use their movements as a physical language to express feelings of loss, “like when you literally feel like the ground can’t support you, or that the person who’s holding you will drop you suddenly.”

Lauren grew up in a family of artists. She’s the oldest of four sisters, all artists: one sister is a violist, one is a playwright, and another a glassblower. She had never practiced circus arts – she had been on the track to become a writer. But while studying English at Swarthmore College, Lauren encountered the writings of a dancer and acrobat that guided her in another direction. “I’ve had chronic pain for most of my adult life. She wrote about her body as though it were a companion, a creative project, a creative constraint, something to take care of, and something that took care of her. I was mesmerized by the possibility that really anyone could relate to their body that way, and I thought, I want that.” She began learning the trapeze in 2009, and found that the nature of the exercise, along with becoming stronger, diminished her pain. All at once, she found herself falling in love with the art form of trapeze. “I loved the way it married these concrete visual metaphors with these surreal actions, like spinning upside down.”

With a couple of friends, she started Tangle Movement Arts in 2011, as an all-women group that was barreling head-on into a new and growing contemporary circus arts movement. Their first show, Ampersand, was in the Fringe Festival that year. Since then, they’ve put on two major shows each year, along with smaller pop-up productions in between. Even though she’s from Philly, she found herself thrown into the Philly arts scene in a new way, discovering that it was a vibrant and innovative community. She met many artists that moved Philly specifically to make art. “I’m finding that it’s such a welcoming community, and the different artistic communities have such great overlap.” One of these artists was Megan Gendell, who wrote the words that inspired Lauren back in college and changed the way she viewed her body. (She has since collaborated with Tangle, in past shows Tell it Slant and Points of Light.)

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Explaining those billion nights: Interview with Thaddeus Phillips

Posted July 25th, 2017

A Billion Nights on Earth is at the same time an adult work for kids and a kids work for adults—or in simple terms, it is for three year olds and surrealists.”

In a Thaddeus Phillips production, nothing stays the same for too long. Using anything from projections to puppets, everything is malleable, from characters to inanimate objects to time and space. Innovative and spellbinding, his works have a fantastical edge and American Theater has called him a “shape-shifter.” For A Billion Nights on Earth, a co-creation with Steven Dufala coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival, Phillips uses kabuki stagecraft, bending assumptions about physical space and the stability of time. The story centers on a father and son who enter into new dimensions after discovering a portal in the back of the fridge. We got the chance to ask him about his process and the inspiration for this magical new work, which is for all ages.

FringeArts: How did the title A Billion Nights on Earth come about?

Thaddeus Phillips: The title references a loose idea of every night we have ever had on earth—perhaps not a billion but many many many nights of humanity and all animal life on earth has lived under the stars and looking up wondering what is actually happening and in awe of the awesome beauty of it. When you become a parent, for me you are reminded more than ever as you explain to your child about the stars and planets, about the fantastic and sheer shock of how amazing and unexplainable it all is. The show is inspired by being a parent and the desire to create not a work for children but a work that would be equally engaging for children and adults. A Billion Nights on Earth is at the same time an adult work for kids and a kids work for adults—or in simple terms, it is for three year olds and surrealists.

FringeArts: Can you briefly describe the set up?

Thaddeus Phillips: The instance that brought it all together was the playing with my son at the amazing Astrid Lindgren’s World Park in Sweden—on a play ground made from a roof with a window. This image is the basic for our design and the entire show. This roof is a magic box that slides and reveals interior and exterior spaces—as the show is constantly referencing minute details of life and huge questions of existence at the same time. The framework for the performance is greatly inspired from Japanese kabuki theater—in that each corner of the playing area is activated and able to change slowly and with transparent magic into wildly different locations. There will also be many large scale inflatables.

Model for set design.

FringeArts: How will the two performers be encountering the scenic and design elements? 

Thaddeus Phillips: Michael and Winslow Fegley are a real father–son acting duo. The Fegleys are an acting family based in Allentown and we are very exited to be able to draw on their real relationship to create the father son for A Billion Nights on Earth

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Cai Guo-Qiang returns to Philadelphia with “Fireflies”

Posted July 24th, 2017

Beginning September 15th and on through October 8th, Fireflies will light up the evenings on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This new outdoors, public artwork by internationally renowned artist Cai Guo-Qiang will consist of dozens of handmade lanterns adorning the sides of pedal operated carts, or “pedicabs.” The lanterns, of all shapes and sizes, will bounce and jostle with the movement of the pedicabs, flickering like fireflies, as operators drive the pedicabs up and down the parkway after dusk. Anyone can ride in one of the twenty-seven pedicabs, for free. The presentation will coincide with Philadelphia’s Parkway 100 Celebration, the 100th anniversary of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “As art and spectacle,” the artist explains, “the work will be at once grounded, aesthetic, and transcendental. The number 27—as a multiple of nine—recalls the Chinese homophone for eternity and celebrates the longevity of the scenic Parkway.”

"Fallen Blossoms" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009

“Fallen Blossoms” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009

Cai Guo-Qiang is well known for his many highly renowned projects around the world, such as designing the fireworks for the Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He often works with explosive materials and is an expert in using fireworks to create his art. He previously collaborated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009, with an explosion that became a floating flower blossom made from fire and smoke,  part of his  “Fallen Blossoms” project (a series of exploding works of art also held at the Fabric Workshop and Museum). He was born in Quanzhou City, in the Fujian Province in China. The lanterns hark back in part to his childhood memories of traditional lantern festivals in his hometown. Cai brings together installation art, drawing, video, and performance art in his work. His work draws upon Eastern philosophy as well as contemporary culture. He wants viewers to engage with the culture and history of location, while contemplating the larger universe, through the site-specific spectacles that he creates.

Dream at Villa Manin Centre for Contemporary Art, Udine, 2008.

This time, Cai is bringing his work to Philadelphia by working with the Association for Public Art, or aPA, which has been active in the city since 1872. Cai is also working with Fung Collaboratives, a group that brings forth both emerging and established artists in intimate and ambitious projects with domestic and international settings. Both organizations work with innovative artists to create public art that is interactive, beautiful, and imbued with the culture and history of its location.

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Big Dance Theater takes on Samuel Pepys: Interview with Annie-B Parson

Posted July 18th, 2017

“In the last few years, what has become important is the uncensored rendering of his bullying, his shame around his behavior and yet his complete lack of awareness of the violence of his actions.”

Annie-B Parson. Photo by Ike Edeani.

From Mark Twain to Euripides, Big Dance Theater is well known for their innovative and unexpected ways of using of literary sources for inspiration. Diligent but whimsical in how they combine the old and the new, they’ve been called “historically promiscuous” by producer David White. In their latest creation, 17c (coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival), co-artistic directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar took the diaries of Samuel Pepys as the source of inspiration and investigation in this ensemble work of dance, theater, and music. Throughout 17c, a distinctly feminist voice is interwoven with his words, gathered from the writings of his contemporary, and from a desire to give voice to those who are historically voiceless, most notably Pepys’s wife. We caught up with Annie-B Parson about the inspiration and process of creating 17c.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title 17c came into being?

Annie–B Parson: The titling of this piece has been an epic story. As the world has changed around us during the two-year span of creating it, the title has changed at least twenty times! Lists and lists of ideas for titles have been generated and circulated; they have ranged from a title which puts pressure on the piece to prove something, to a title that sounds great to see and say, to the simple naming of a fact. On the day the deadline came to title it for the premiere, we liked the simple efficiency of 17c, which supports the formal nature of the material as well. And, as one work is always a response to the work that precedes it, 17c was reactive to our last title, which was cumbersome and obscure.

FringeArts: What first drew you to Pepys as material that might work for the stage?

Annie–B Parson: As someone who is hyper-generative, I am always drawn to others who are also can’t stop making things. Pepys had to write, he was miserable when he missed a day, and this act of getting it down, of recording every little boil on his body, every encounter and feeling around the encounter, made me feel a kinship with him. And, it was amazing when first encountering these diaries, that 350 years ago, dance and theater were so valued. Eureka! I felt vindication in this figure who found dance a worthy daily practice, who valued the dance in theater, and who felt dance would better his standing. And, I loved that this person was so enamored of theater that he would need to quit it from time to time, much like he would quit drinking! I was also drawn to how contemporary he seemed, how trendy, so involved with his clothing, fretting about each outfit—when to wear a new coat, in what situation his new sleeves would have the best effect, etc. This was my first reading of the diaries about ten years ago.

Pepys.

But in the last few years, what has become important is the uncensored rendering of his bullying, his shame around his behavior and yet his complete lack of awareness of the violence of his actions. The absence of the voice of his wife Bess disturbed me more and more, and I began to suspect that he had burned her diaries, thereby silencing her to history. I searched for a female theatrical voice from that time to balance and testify to a feminism that was occurring then, but has been lost. This led me to the obscure radical feminist writer, Margaret Cavendish. To my delight, Pepys had encountered her a few times on the street, as she was a bit of a bad-girl celeb.

Margaret Cavendish.

FringeArts: What made the other source materials you brought into the show—namely Margaret Cavendish’s play—work for you?

Annie–B Parson: I have always dragged the past into the present, as one cannot exist without the other. David White called the work of Big Dance  “historically promiscuous”—and it’s true. I am not interested in linear reality as such, but in a relational reality, one that is elastic and poetic. I read quite a few women’s plays from that time, hoping to stage a play within a play. Margaret Cavendish’s work leapt out at me for its directness and its politics. Cavenidish’s writing was underground at the time, her plays were “closet plays” meaning there was no intention for them to be produced; as a woman, this was an impossibility. But she sustained a prolific writing life and her work speaks to her radical feminist stance. I feel she is owed many, many productions of her work to right the inequality of exposure, and our rendering is part of that re-balancing. It’s not that different today by the way. We are now seeing a few women playwrights on Broadway, and personally, though my work is produced, I am erased in subtle but systemic ways. I feel a kinship with Cavendish for sure.

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Rare Opportunity to Take Gaga Workshop and Classes

Posted July 17th, 2017

A three-day Gaga Workshop, which includes a class and repertoire, open to professional dancers and dance students ages 16-and-older, is coming to the Performance Garage (1515 Brandywine Street) in Philadelphia, August 2–4. There will also be Open Gaga People Classes those three days, which are open to the general public (16-and-older), without the necessity of previous experience. This is only the second time that Gaga classes have ever been offered in Philadelphia.

Presented by Automatic Arts, the workshop and classes are led by Gaga Master Teacher, Or Meir Schraiber, who is a dancer in Ohad Naharin’s internationally renowned Batsheva Dance Company. Gaga is a movement language which Ohad Naharin, one of the world’s preeminent contemporary choreographers, developed over the course of many years and which is applied in daily practice and exercises by the Batsheva Dance Company members. The language of Gaga originated from the belief in the healing, dynamic, ever-changing power of movement. As explained by Naharin, “We explore multi-dimensional movement, we enjoy the burning sensation in our muscles, we are aware of our explosive power and sometimes we use it.  We change our movement habits by finding new ones, we can be calm and alert at once. We become available . . .”

The Gaga Workshop and Classes are part of a new program by Automatic Arts to bring one high quality professional dance workshop to Philadelphia each summer.

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Textbook Definition of Life: Interview with Dan Rothenberg of Pig Iron

Posted July 13th, 2017

“I think the question ‘Does a machine have a perspective?’ is another way of asking the question ‘What is alive and not alive?'”

Brilliant in their innovation and shining in their craft, the Pig Iron Theater Company has earned its accolades for its artistic excellence. The recipient of several Obie awards, the company never fails to amaze in its fresh, interdisciplinary takes on current events and social themes of the human experience. Dan Rothenberg is one of the founders and artistic directors of Pig Iron, producing their newest work, A Period of Animate Existence. This production has amounted to a huge collaboration between actors, musicians, and a number of choirs, culminating in a show about the human experience of climate change, in the form of a symphony. We caught up with Dan to find out about how the idea for this show came about, and what it’s been like to put it all together.

FringeArts: How did the title A Period of Animate Existence come into being?

Dan Rothenberg: Troy Herion proposed this title.  He looked up the word “life” in the dictionary.  It is a textbook definition. We were working with a few different sources of inspiration: Alan Watts, who talks about “the rocks peopling” as a way of imagining the beginnings of life on Earth, and understanding that we organic creatures are made out of exactly the same stuff as inorganic rocks. We looked at Richard Dawkins and “the Selfish Gene,” which talks about humans as big lumbering robots “operated” by genes within us.  This grade-school question: “what’s the difference between alive and not-alive?” remains elusive for both scientists and philosophers, even today.

FringeArts: How did you go about gathering your key collaborators, what were the artistic conversations you were hoping to foster between not just them and Pig Iron, but between each other?

Dan Rothenberg: Some of the collaborators are folks I’ve worked with before for years, like Tyler Micoleau (lights) and Nick Kourtides (sound). These are people I trust who have contributed to some of the Pig Iron work I am most proud of. I am working with the librettists Kate Tarker and Will Eno, and with choreographer Beth Gill, for the first time. We were looking for artists who take on big ideas and who care about form. People who make work in which the form is front and center.  Especially with choreographer Beth Gill, I wanted somebody with a deeply mathematical mind. Someone who sees the poetry in mathematics, since I feel that this piece is about seeing the world in terms of fundamental forces rather than as a set of relationships between people.

FringeArts: What prompted the five movements structure?

Dan Rothenberg: Gustav Mahler said that a symphony must be like the world, containing everything. So the five-movement structure is a symphonic structure. It’s our own “13 ways of looking at a blackbird.” A deliberate effort to get at something that’s too large to get your head around, by coming at it from five very different angles.

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Geoff Sobelle comes HOME for the 2017 Fringe Festival

Posted June 30th, 2017

“The physical space is definitely a character. It is meant to connote all of the phases of construction/finish while also allowing for a more poetic space where people can reflect their own experiences.”

Geoff Sobelle. Photo by Jauhien Sasnou.

Geoff Sobelle is described by many, including himself, as a theatrical “absurdist.” Fascinated with “the sublime ridiculous,” Sobelle presents surreally old-fashioned stage effects and fantastical approaches to showcasing seemingly mundane parts of life. Beginning his career as a magician, and now actor, director, and producer, Sobelle’s works act as grand and genius illusions, earning such praise as the Bessie Award, the Edinburgh Fringe First Award, and the New York Times Critics Pick. In HOME, coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival, the audience will witness the life cycle of a house, built on the staged during the show, and its many inhabitants over time. HOME is focused on the human experience of location, especially what makes a house into a home. We chatted with Sobelle about the making of his latest production.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title HOME came into being?

Geoff Sobelle: The first working title was “House and Home.”  I was/am interested in the difference between those two words. How we confuse them. My sister—with whom I lived for the first seventeen years of my life or so—is the dramaturg on this project. She likes to poke fun at the old adage from The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home,”because she says, and rightly so, that home is not a place. It’s something else . . . so indeed, there IS no PLACE like home!

House and Home eventually became shortened to HOME because it became more and more of what I was curious about—the comfort and also the alienation of something called home. Coming back to home can be like a warm bath, but also can be strange. And then—if not a place—what is home? This piece seeks to awaken that question in the audience.

FringeArts: How are you working with audience participation?

Geoff Sobelle: That’s a great question, and really at the heart of this project. I wanted to make a really large group piece—like 35 people or so—to have a kind of view of people and their acts of dwelling like you’d watch an ant farm. Something zoological. And also different time periods—all of the residents of a given address over time—but all there at the same time. Chaos! But I could not at first really conceive of how to effectively tour with such a large company. I have an ongoing passion/confusion/obsession with working with an unprepared audience. I think that it can often be awful, but that there might be a way—if great care and respect is taken—that it might be very beautiful. I am hoping that each person has an extraordinary experience and kind of forgets that they are in the midst of a performance. And that really is the point—when we are engaged in the act of living—maybe we lose track . . .

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We don’t exist without you: Interview with No Face Performance Group

Posted May 25th, 2017

Jaime Maseda and Mark McCloughan in THE TOP. Photo by Nikki Dodd.

Mark McCloughan and Jaime Maseda, who together are No Face Performance Group, were kind enough to sit down for a chat with us to talk about the THE TOP.  What is THE TOP?  The answer may be more complex than you realize.  But the one thing we’re sure of is that it doesn’t exist without you.

FringeArts: How did the title THE TOP come about? And what was the moment when you realized, we can make a show of this?

Jaime Maseda: “The Top” is the name of a song that plays a prominent role in the piece. We lovingly ripped it off. Hopefully nobody comes for us. All jokes aside, the song’s title has always felt like an apt title. Its simplicity both belies and points towards the grandeur of the song, which is both minimalist and bombastic in its own right. The performance itself has minimalist elements for sure, but we’ve made a point of maintaining a wry and critical engagement with minimalism, which can be a rather oppressive ideology. What began as an exploration self-aware minimalist choreography became a celebration of and engagement in radical intimacy and empathy—albeit through a stripped down, simple gesture.

Mark McCloughan: The song entered the process completely randomly—one day, when we were working in the studio with Magda and Chelsea, Jaime put it on and made a performance proposal about how to interact with the song. It was captivating, and we immediately honed in on it as something to delve into more deeply. We had a sense that there was a piece there, and began exploring how to expand it. We added stuff, we made it more complicated, but nothing seemed quite right. There was this growing sense that the first proposal was more complete than we realized. But to think about making a whole piece based on this very simple initial idea was scary. Would it be enough for a piece? Would it hold the audience’s attention? Eventually, this became a sort of dare, both for us and for the audience. The dare: make it enough.

Jaime Maseda: Speaking for myself, I’m not sure there was a moment of confirming “oh, this works.” Which is for sure terrifying, but also a good sign—a sign that a project is worth pursuing. With a lot—if not all—of the work we’ve made over the past few years, there’s been a definite sense of “We have no idea if this structure succeeds.” And actually, a challenge we often end up giving ourselves is to create pieces that explore totally different measures of success. I think THE TOP is no different!

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Yesterday was a disaster

Posted May 1st, 2017

Republished with kind permission from the Almanac Fronteras blog.  For more blog posts, click here. 

… right from the start. I walked in (late) to our dangerously short rehearsal preceding the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts staff show, and felt like something was off. Swiftly we worked and reworked the excerpt we’d decided to share, swapping Robin in for LJ’s part, which Robin calmly took on — quickly learning and practicing tricks she’d never done before…. surfing Ben up to two high on her back, catching Emmanuel and Cole as they fall backward into the group’s arms from up high…..   It was clear to all of us we were working on borrowed time and yet we stubbornly pushed on. This is something we do well:: We challenge ourselves and we challenge each other.  Usually asking more than what feels safe or possible. Often inside pressure cookers of limited time.  And often we find, surprisingly, that we are actually capable.  With wide eyes and pumping blood we find our bodies doing things together we’ve never done before.

So in some ways this flash rehearsal felt familiar.  Except, as audience members arrived, it became increasingly clear Joe was too sick to perform. His body, hit by a gastro-intestinal infection, was literally shutting down before my eyes.  He needed to lay down, see a doctor, drink water—anything but perform an acrobatic dance.  So there we were, again reworking the piece, only now in darkness backstage with the rest of the show’s performers, with few minutes to spare.

I’ll add here that catching a flying body is much harder with three people than with four, as one can imagine.  And, trying to do two peoples’ jobs can get you punched in the face by a foot… which is exactly what happened to me.  So there I am, top of show, crouched in the darkness weeping silently.  My nose felt like it was broken and gushing blood (it wasn’t… it is actually just bruised thankfully) as I ran through the newest changes in my head over and over.

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Pretty brain melty: Interview with Almanac Dance Circus Theatre

Posted May 1st, 2017

This Mexican Week, FringeArts presents two one-night-only shows by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, An Homage to Whatshername and A Door in the Desert.  These shows, made in collaboration with Mexican choreographer and performer Emmanuel Becerra, have been nurtured over the last six months with intensive, long rehearsals, deep conversations about the things that divide us, and Almanac’s signature compassion.  Artistic director Ben Grinberg, Emmanuel Becerra, and company members Evelyn Langley and Joseph Ahmed were kind enough to talk through their process, and how Fronteras (the umbrella title for both works) came to be.

FringeArts: How did the title FRONTERAS come about? And then how did the two titles—A Door in the Desert and An Homage to Whatshername?

Ben Grinberg: Fronteras is the Spanish word for “borders.” My collaborative relationship with Emmanuel Becerra has always been about sharing our different cultures, and, in a way, asking questions about why cultural perceptions and stereotypes exhibit themselves in the ways that they do. When we started talking about the project we would work on together, it was at the height of the presidential election season, and of course—and unfortunately—our writing grants to bring a Mexican artist to the United States to collaborate began to feel like a political statement. Emmanuel took this idea and started to get very interested in the idea of boundaries and borders, both politically as it pertained to his experience of working in the United States, and in investigating the borders and boundaries that exist between and within people. When we traveled to Mexico City this summer, Emmanuel shared this research with us in the form of a series of collaborative workshops, which culminated in a site-specific performance in a four story building. When the audience arrived, we asked them to write a border that they struggle with internally on a piece of paper. We took all of these pieces of paper and put them in a bag, and as the bag got passed between performers in various parts of the house, the papers took on a votive significance.

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