Leah Stein Breathes Life in the the Iron Factory with Bellows Falls

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by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

The Iron Factory, which sits tucked away on a small, one way street near Norris Square in North Philly, has FringeArts written all over it: crumbling exposed brick flanking the top floor studio, large rough hewn windows punctuating the façade, and a creaking floor strewn—in the case of Leah Stein—with rocks, iron instruments (in both the musical and mechanical sense of the word) and the odd wooden cog wheel. Preceding the performance, there’s even the fairly homogenous crowd of theater goers spilling absentmindedly into the street, part urban renewal, part gentrification—all completely oblivious to the fact that they’re blocking traffic and every once a while, a car does need to get through.

But Bellows Falls, the latest from the Philadelphia-based choreographer and director, offers a haven. Granted this haven, which Stein conceived as a tribute to her father and to the Iron Factory space, is frequently interrupted by an ice cream truck circling the block, but somehow this uncanny juxtaposition works.

The program begins with Stein lying on the floor in a rectangular pool of sunlight, created by one of the factory’s windows. She is covered by rocks: they could be the earth covering her corpse-like body, or they could be grief weighing her down; for a while, there is only stillness until she begins to breathe deeply, sending little piles of the gray pebbles falling to the floor.

It is the sound created that’s the most interesting, and as Stein slowly scrambles from one sunlight rectangle to another, never facing the audience and never getting up from the ground. The rocks continue to drop and we hear sloshing, scraping, and the relentless ice cream truck as little gray puffs of dust rise up into the air.

Stein’s longtime collaborator Jungwoong Kim adds another layer of sound: the creaking handle of a metal bucket. His skill in “playing” the bucket is surpassed only by violinist Diane Monroe, whose presence grounds the work while offering a beautiful, otherworldly soundscape.

It’s more meditation than dance, with clanking bits of iron reminding one of the bells run at the end of a yoga class, although why bother with these sort of taxonomies during the Fringe? Stein has become well known for her site specific work, and as Kim zooms out a window onto the building’s roof, it’s easy to see why. Stien makes you notice things about the Iron Factory that you would not have noticed before: the large pulley system at the back of the room, the seemingly ancient elevator, those pools of rectangular light on the floor that are taken for granted until Steins supine body transform them into coffins.

Hardcore dance enthusiasts would be left wanting more virtuosity, more speed, but the slow and curiously meditative quality of Bellows Falls seemed to hypnotize many of its viewers.

About Kat Richter

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both dance and cultural anthropology. She is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, Philadelphia's premiere all-female tap company. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and The Journal of Research in Dance Education.

As a professional dancer, Richter began her apprenticeship with the New Jersey Tap Ensemble at the age of 9 and was promoted to Principal Dancer while still in high school. In 2005, she received a scholarship to Oxford University and returned to the UK in 2009. She holds a BA in Dance and History from Goucher College and an MA in Dance Anthropology from Roehampton University. A proud Philadelphia transplant, she blogs at www.fieldworkinstilettos.com

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