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FringeArts – Dance worlds converge in What I Learned About Outer Space

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by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

FringeArts guest artists engaged in a choreographic jam session with Pennsylvania Ballet dancers, composers and musicians from the Curtis Institute for the centerpiece festival premiere of “What I Learned From Outer Space.” The title refers to the different, the sometimes separate galaxies of classical and contemporary aesthetic. Of course, these porous borders have been bridged before by dance artists for decades, but rarely does the dialogue reach contemplation and expression onstage.

The process of developing three separate works with this theme in just weeks before the public performance was the high-wire process was the experimental part of three works to the dance stage. It reflected the spirit of the cultural missions the Fringe Festival and pointedly to producing director Nick Stuccio, who danced with Pennsylvania Ballet before he co-founded the Philly Fringe.

Seattle-based choreographer Zoe Scofield’s IanAlexDanielMarriaSamantha, its title comprised of the first names of PB ballet dancers Ian Hussey, Alexandra Hughes, Daniel Cooper, Marria Cosentino and Samantha Barczak. Scofield probably allowing the dancers’ a measure of personal expressionism in her dreamy, noir dances cape. Lights up on everyone except Ian in ballet position diagonal line, with their legs clicking off petit battement to tick-tocky music by Alyssa Weinberg. Ian, in leather breeches, is on the other side of the space jumping rope en entrechats foot falls as fast as a boxer’s. Scofield continues to moves the dancers around in ballet positions frescos, but those locked-in port de bra torsos droop, duet lift patterns freeze, dancers pivot mechanically, but each seems preoccupied, even as their bodies perform airy feats.

Eventually, they skulk to the shadowy backstage area with a ballet barre, only to reenter on other side of the stage as if they are on a choreographic assembly line. Ian is led in blindfolded and at one point, he is supporting Alexandra in her arabesque on point, the balance not checking limb trembling, until he wrenches himself away. Order evaporates further as the men absurdly hopscotch backward and forward, the women rip out the pins in their hair and one has her toe shoes removed ritualistically. Cooper keeps pitching himself out of double-tours and Marria mounts his body like hydraulic scaffolding and manipulates his leg extensions with hers. Scofield releases them from this slo-motion tableau of drudgery and the ensemble flies into pirouettes circling them deliriously as they fall out the pattern laughing.

Weinberg’s score has waves of time-lapse tremolos and taut sonorous lower strings that inspire gorgeous counterpoint phrasing from Scofield. Choreographically, this piece is a bit static in the middle, but that hardly takes away from its potent and witty ideas, wonderfully danced by this cast.

Berlin-based choreographer Georg Reischl had the musician’s onstage milling around with the dancers in Straying Stardust before they take position at their music stands on the side of the space. The score by Rene Orth has recorded synth overlays. From the start six dancers- James Ihde, Rachel Maher, Francis Veyette, Lauren Fadeley, Elizabeth Wallace, Alex Ratcliffe-Lee move in fits of aggressive, snaky choreography that keep shifting gears and spatial focus. Group puzzles form and vanish, duets appear, jagged phrasing that scrambles all over the dance floor. Orth’s music has equally wending oboe and clarinet lines that accelerate with electronic overlays. At a key moment, Veyette locks into a writhing and expressive solo, then all of the dancers charge toward the musician and freeze directly in front of them as they crescendo.

This work has potent, but ultimately ponderous ideas and remains the sum of its sketchy parts instead of a cohesive piece. But, without doubt, these dancers unleashed themselves with full technical veracity on Reischl sense of liberating dance expression.

Israeli choreographer Itamar Serussi’s Operation has Jermel Johnson, Amir Yogel, and Alexander Peters in utramod floral tights. Kesley Ivana Hellebuyck in black singlet and red socks (instead of those lethal Red Shoes). This quartet stare into the audience, but it not a runway model pissed-off manner, more with an invitation to this dance intimacy. Serussi dynamically vaults the dialogue of what ballet dancers can bring and can learn from in blended idioms and open artistic minds. Early on the dancers lie on the floor in a compass formation then peel off and essay character movements, Peters dropping to a Cossack squat-walk or hopping in a one foot gallop toward the musicians, Yogel holding his hands on his head like a crown and whirling dervishly and just as hypnotically as pumping out grand pirouettes. Kesley in a back bent arabesque that brings her head and heel together (Peters looks on with a ‘you’re kidding’ face). Peters and Johnson lock to deep spidery plies, as their feet go to points and then they flare their legs in the air. Degree of difficulty 10+ in any syllabus

Serussi’s choreography is absurdist, whimsical, dynamic and completely inside a driving, art carnavale score by Dutch composer Richard van Kruysdijk. And Serussi lets the music take the stage in more than one point, as the back curtain opens dramatically, exposing the building Palladian windows and the dancers just seem to loiter against the building’s industrial 1903 tile work.

The musicians of Ensemble39- Alexandra von der Embse, oboe; Rob Patterson, clarinet; Rebecca Anderson, violin; Vicki Powell, viola; Nathaniel West, bass; Natalie Helm, cello- all alums from the Curtis Institute of Music, were equal partners in all three pieces, their close proximity to the dancers brought rare and palpable moments of dance-musician synergy.

This high-wire piece played like an invocation in its premiere run during the completion of the opening of the 2014 FringeArts festival at their new digs Theater with the completed brasserie La Peg and beer garden plaza with the Ben Franklin Bridge looming above. ‘Outer Space‘ couldn’t have been any more inner space exploring Philly’s dance continuum.

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