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The nEW Festival

Curated by Paule Turner and Melanie Stewart

by Lewis Whittington

May 31 - June 12, 2005 -- The Arts Bank, Philadelphia, PA

For years, dance in Philadelphia virtually stopped by the end of spring, but all that has changed with events like the Live Arts Festival (formerly the Fringe) that proved there is an off-season audience here. This June also brought the nEW Festival co-produced/directed by longtime Philadelphia dance mavericks Melanie Stewart and Paule Turner, who conceived it as a fresh independent framework.

The festival, subtitled “dance-driven: artist-fueled,” featured many multi-media/discipline shows. The festival also featured DanceHouse, an ambitious program by independent dancer-choreographers performing their developing work, and an uber-experimental wing called Dance LAB. The dance-friendly stage at the Arts Bank on Broad and South St. was re-opened for the bacchanalia. 

It was fitting that the legendary Group Motion Dance Company would be among the headliners. Artistic Director Manfred Fischbeck’s experimental styles in the ‘60s introduced Philadelphia’s conservative audiences to the movement avant-garde. They were joined by seasoned modern companies—Paule Turner /court, Subcircle & Laura Peterson and Headlong Dance Theatre.

Opening night wasn’t live dance; it was the first screenings of two film series called Philadelphia Dance Project’s Motion Pictures, with highlights from the 2005 Dance On Camera Festival jury prize-winners, “The Cost of Living” by Lloyd Newson and “Shorts Blowout” by Gretjen Clausing.

The highlight was the “physical theater” of the British group DV8 in a film feature that used dance the way movie musicals used to use music—as absurdly integral to the narrative. The second program featured Rennie Harris Puremovement in “Endangered Species.”

To its credit, the festival established its own identity and did not play like a knock-off of either Live Arts or DanceBoom! (the annual winter collective that presents at the Wilma Theater). Naturally there were missteps in programming, and the framework of “experimental” should have been more carefully selected to avoid some of the sophomoric and indulgent concepts that were performed here.

Here are some of the highlights and the lowlights:

GM’s artistic director Manfred Fischbeck never shies away from the absurd concept or staging “event” theater, but he kept his scale small for his “Screen.” This film (great video and sound design by Jorge Cousineau) and music movement essay comments on technological society, specifically the internet and video games. The introductory segments, “Mysterium I & II,” were elemental dance, followed by numbing minimalist choreography by Carol Brown in “Strata.”

In fact, another Fischbeck -- daughter Laina -- rescued the tedium of the program midway. Brandon D’Augustine lurched onstage and moved in slow-mo Butoh style, eventually writhing to a diabolical techno-score by Gabriel Chalon. Suddenly Fischbeck stalked the stage in a demented pink toile gown and grotesque make-up. She modulated her body with a series of terrifying shakes, shimmies and shivers—her midsection moving like a nuclear gyroscope.  Her facial expressions, under smeared make-up, built a terrifying surrealism in moments when she was not a hypnotic vessel of the danse macabre.

Headlong Dance Theater has always mixed traditionally theatrical elements not commonly choreographed, with a skewered point of view. A couple of years ago they brought a brilliantly Cheever-esque dancescape about desperate housewives and husbands in “Subirdia.” This time out their social satire didn’t translate to their abstraction of Appalachian life in “Yonder,” the evening’s centerpiece.

The irreverent HDT couldn’t just come out and puncture such sacred Americana as this. That would be too easy a mark. Instead, they just made it a solemn and grim affair. Hoedowns ended in male brutality and even murder.  By the finish, everyone wound up in a cemetery. Cheap and predictable.

In contrast “Hippie Elegy” an episodic duet set to music by Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield was a nifty piece of nostalgic goofiness of the Woodstock generation, with its real and imagined “free-love” values. Jeb Kreager and Amy Smith brought levity and flower power to the hippy-dippy movements. “Attachment 1 & 2” had Nichole Canuso & Niki Cousineau hip-locked for a modern dance waltz.  In part 2, they were joined by their children Simon Canuso Kiley and Willem & Dalia Cousineau. Even though baby Dalia (harnessed to her mother) spewed out the choreography toward the end, the trio of new dancers wasn’t to be missed.

For Subcircle’s “Somewhere Close to Now” Niki Cousineau jumped in and out of ethereal spaces and environments via film projections. She pantomimed ripping through other dimensions initially with the aid of slash red lighting, but then she bounced through dimensions in a series of intriguing tension and releases. Cousineau walked behind screen projections (masterfully engineered by husband Jorge) and was seamlessly in a forest, which was eventually stripped of the foliage and turned into 3-dimensional Escher computer imaging. Cousineau got sidetracked with her own profundity on occasion, detracting from otherwise diamond-hard expressionism.

The festival featured filmed “previews” of each program and the trailer for Laura Peterson’s choreography (the other side of the Subcircle bill) made it look like a tedious exercise.  Peterson with roller-skates strapped to her knees propelling herself around Philadelphia. Actually, her dancers were on all fours and costumed in pink and black stripped unitards with pink frilly panties.  They moved insect-like laterally and geometrically in strange tangos set to French lounge and art music (Edith Piaf, no less). At one point they created a Busby Berkeley kaleidoscope (film projected from above in advance). The knee skating was mercifully contained in a racy finish.

Paule Turner literally unveiled his much-anticipated full version of “Touched,” a bold polemic that already has an avid following of champions and detractors among critics and audiences who have followed its genesis for two years.

Only Turner could upstage nudity on the stage with blistering sociopolitical text, part of it autobiographical (including correspondence from his brother who is serving time in prison for murder) and some of it including a diatribe about the repercussions of slavery.

Turner toyed with the structure of the piece since it was excerpted for DanceBoom! with mixed results. Primarily, he toned down some of the video projections and lengthened the choreography. Turner should have also expanded choreographic variation since the repetition on top of his hurling imagery, ideas and polemics detracted from this runaway locomotive.

Turner and his five dancers were in and out of their garb so casually that prurient interest or any sensationalized notion of nude dancers was nullified. Turner says that “Touched” is about being spiritually blessed and slightly unbalanced. We are blessed, but cursed to observe the world with different lenses—and that’s where the dementia comes in. Indeed.

The two collective programs were grab bags of the good, the bad and the ugly. DanceHouse faired well with strong work from Stewart. Her piece “The Girl with Bees in Her Hair” was scored to an American gothica poem by Eleanor Wilner. The real corker was a burlesque called “Bob Hope’s Nightmare,” a blistering parody of Hope’s USO shows, with a leather jock-strapped and whore-painted Rob Davidson as the emcee taking aim at the current administration. Brent Smith’s “Commander-in-Chaps” rodeo ride on one of the go-go dancers was hilariously depraved.

Philip Grosser’s movement meditation “O Solitude” was a solo for dancer Tim Early set to music by Henry Purcell; the quietude of the music was matched by the tranquility of Early’s expressiveness. It was also an illustration of how undecorated choreography can be engrossing dance, unlike Meghan Durham’s “Appetite” which was less choreography than it was a college method acting exercise about eating.

The low points of DanceHouse were nothing compared to the other dicey experimental program DanceLab. This was a dismal evening of works-in-progress that had little to do with dance or theater and more to do with sophomoric obsessions. “Goldschlager” was a radical performance piece by Alexis Brie Wildau who was dressed in a corrupted sheer gown that exposed a strap-on dildo that eventually became the object of Wildau’s singing and ranting. Shoot me now. “Moustache” was an equally ill-conceived sketch about machismo wrestling and facial hair.

Thankfully, the nEW brought a minimum of dancers walking onstage staring out into space. Whenever I see this, I alternately imagine that they are witnessing either a deity or the biggest genitals in the world approaching them.  There were only a few instances in pieces where dancers were staring at their hands, the choreographic equivalent of …(dot dot dot). Single arm handsprings should be barred from the modern dance stage for at least a generation. So-called “improv” and mechanical exercises should be kept in the studio. Yes George Balanchine made it compelling to perform Bauhaus ballet exercises on stage, but as a general rule of thumb it’s better to keep the nuts and bolts in your toolbox.

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