by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal
The Philadelphia Fringe Festival aims to celebrate innovation and creativity, and Vervet Dance certainly lived up to that goal with Boing! – a performance piece for 1,000 ping pong balls, 5 performers, and a few pots and pans. Ping pong balls, by inherent design, are to be played with, and the performers set out to do just that, uncovering many fun possibilities in the process.
In Boing!, the sound, movement, and visual design evolved simultaneously to generate a multi-sensory experience. The sound was produced by dancers swinging the pots with balls inside. At the same time, the swinging provided the impetus for the choreography. When the balls went flying, the visual spectacle was inevitable.
Vervet artistic director Loren Groenendaal and experimental percussionist Flandrew Fleisenberg have been collaborating on improvisations for several years, however Boing! was their first jointly composed evening length work. Rounding out the group were performers Sean Thomas Boyt, Jenny Roe Sawyer, and Andy Thierauf.
The greatest delight was the surprise of the different sounds the balls made under different conditions. The sound of one ball bouncing in a pot changed when the ball bounced higher, and also with the addition of more balls or change in the type of pot. Sometimes the balls were swirled in the pots, creating an unanticipated aural experience. When the 5 performers filled their pots with balls and swung them all together, a thunderous roar was produced.
Individual sections of the performance developed gradually, and each section was allowed to resonate (figuratively as well as literally) before moving on to the next idea. In the opening moments, the ping pong balls were tossed from the wings, gradually growing in number and creating the effect of popcorn just reaching the bursting point.
Fleisenberg was the chief noisemaker, producing a steady beat as the backbone of the piece. The dance vocabulary devised by Groenendaal featured circular shapes and movements. The dancers were like balls themselves – spinning, rolling and bouncing. The choreography was cleanly performed, and the dancers shared their sense of fun with the audience.
In a section where the kinetic energy escalated to the point where all 1,000 balls were spilled across the stage, the performers were obliged to clean them up, leading to a myriad of new possibilities. Some performers wielded brooms (and one even a leaf blower) to corral the balls, while others became engrossed in a percussive reverie of sorting and sifting.
At other times, the energy settled into quiet moments where multiple balls were kept bouncing inches off the ground. Sometimes vast numbers of balls were allowed to roll and settle across the floor, creating a whispering effect.
The creative fun also led to a ping pong match in which the players batted the ball back and forth using the kitchen pots as paddles.
The evening ended on a high note, when the performers flung buckets full of balls at the audience. What happened next was entirely spontaneous, as the audience threw the balls back at the performers who endeavored to catch them in their pots. This moment, too, was allowed to develop its own percussive character. There was plenty of laughter to conclude the performance – in mutual delight, the performers and audience collaborated on a final moment of play together.