Poetry in the Air: Tangle Movement Arts brings Life Lines to the Fringe
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.) The circus arts community is a tight one, and Lauren has been able to watch the movement grow and work with artists she admires. Tangle practices at night, at the Funicular Station in Germantown. The space is a live/work studio, the home of the Give and Take Jugglers. “I actually grew up watching them perform, and now they’re my friends! It’s really lovely.” Lauren loves to share her transformative experience with others, by teaching circus arts to adults who are new to the practice. “It’s so fun to be able to introduce someone to that, especially somebody who was fearful before, or who doesn’t identify as an athlete and doesn’t connect to their body in that way.”
The company is tight knit—nearly all of the members of the group have been there since the beginning. “Everything the ensemble makes is collaboratively devised. Artists might choreograph their own solo individually, but the overall narrative of the show, the braiding together of different arts and creation of acts, is done together.” When she began trapeze, this kind of creative process was entirely new to Lauren, who was used to the often solo endeavor of writing poetry. She found that she loved connecting face to face with the other members of the group in the creative process. The members of the group have formed deep connections over the years, both creative and personal. Lauren loved this type of interactive energy, both in practice and on the stage during a show. The performative, but intimate feeling experienced with an audience in a shared, connective space “was a mode I hadn’t known before—I was just hooked.”
Over the past ten years, the contemporary circus movement in the United States has exploded. When beginning Tangle Arts, Lauren found that people had very different expectations of circus arts. They either expected a traditional circus show for kids, or something burlesque, and meant for adults. Instead, Tangle aimed for a deeper connection between the performers and the audience, through the physical movements that carry emotional meaning. Still, their shows something to offer everyone. “People get to see bodies in the air and women being badasses, while they also get to see a new level of artistry and circus arts,” Lauren explains. “We try to make it exciting to both circus buffs and to anyone else who just knows what they like, and people are continually excited by that.”
Instead of simply a spectacle, contemporary circus arts is open to telling stories about people, their passions, relationships, and their lives. Tangle Arts shows focus on relationships between women, whether passionate, antagonizing, friendly, or romantic. In A Girl’s Guide to Neighborly Conduct, (2015) they explored the relationship between neighbors in adjacent row houses. In other shows, instead of acting as characters, the artists move as abstract forces. In both cases, the acrobatics subvert preconceived notions about feminine strength, while melding intense physical spectacle with emotive body movements. In their upcoming show, Life Lines, these physical metaphors embody community as well as isolation. In one solo, the artist repeatedly falls in a series of increasingly large “drops” down a silk line, showing a gradual loss of grip and sense of safety. The artists move through new realities, where they “learn” how to move in an entirely new way, just as someone experiencing a huge loss may feel that they need to find a new way to live.
A production takes about six months to put together. During the first three months, the group has conversations with big, open-ended questions, sketching out ideas for scenes. They may try out new ways for hanging silks, or create innovative routines that push the boundaries on established techniques. When devising an act, some circus artists begin with the logistics of the action they are pursuing, while others start with the emotion of the scene. The second three months are a time of more intense development—some questions about the specifics of the acts become more technical, while others are more abstract. This is when they put together overarching themes: What does it mean to be a good neighbor? How do different people recover from loss?
Lauren was drawn to trapeze because of its nature as an aerial dance. There are seemingly endless movements that are only possible in the air. “You’re almost parting with your own weight—it’s an infinitely malleable metaphor.” The objects that set the stage are an integral part of the artists’ movements and artistic expression. “You become scene partners with the apparatus—it’s a very kinetic object.” In A Girl’s Guide to Neighborly Conduct, one of the silk lines acted as a visual boundary between the two houses, and the houses themselves were made out of similar lines. In Life Lines, one artist performs a sultry tango, and the trapeze almost seems as if it’s another dancer.
Tangle also forms connections with performers in other art forms. “Making circus arts is really exciting because it places us sort of in the center of a network of gymnastics, but also dance, theater, and poetry.” Members of the group are able to bring in their skills in other disciplines, blending them into the productions. In the last show, for instance, Lauren used her experience as a poet to write and incorporate spoken word. “In the show we’re working on now, we’re working really heavily with live music, and that’s a exciting collaboration as well.” Pascale Smith, Lauren’s sister and one of Tangle’s founding members, is the lead soloist for the music of the show. They will also be collaborating with Guide Birds, a Philly-based Americana group. Lauren finds that exposing oneself to other disciplines is essential to being an artist. “I try to see a lot of live work, and Philadelphia is a wonderful city to do that in. Every show I see, I can learn something from.”
The company members have a wide range of professions outside of circus. There’s a historian, a textile artist, and an engineer, among many other specialties. During the day, Lauren works in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania, and does some freelance poetry editing. She loves having a group that incorporates a large range of professions, as well as athletic backgrounds and body types. People of many different bodies are able to do circus, and in that way, it becomes a celebration of the body. Four members of Tangle Arts have had babies since it began – Lauren herself is a new mom, and gave birth to her son just six weeks ago! While she’s unsure whether she will be performing this fall, she designed and performed a piece on the trapeze while seven months pregnant. Pushing herself toward new challenges is a constant in circus arts. “I’m actually really afraid of heights,” confesses Lauren, who now regularly practices and performs at twenty feet above the ground. “I just had to redefine what ‘high’ is!”
Tangle Movement Arts
Sept 6–8 at 8pm
Sept 9 at 3pm + 8pm
Christ Church Neighborhood House
20 North American Street
$14–$20 / 90 minutes
Photos: Michael Ermilio