Philly’s Got Talent – For Real: Review of Gala at the Fringe Festival

photo credit: Josefina Tommasi

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

A cleverly structured celebration of the love of dance by performers and audiences alike, Gala, conceived by self-proclaimed “philosopher of dance” Jérôme Bel, brought the house down on the first of its three-night Fringe Festival run on Tuesday at the Prince Theater.

Jérôme Bel, a French-born choreographer, has been creating works since 1994.  His “non-dance” style was seen in an earlier audience favorite, “The Show Must Go On,” at the Fringe Festival in 2008.  The “non-dance” movement originated in France in the 1990s when its proponents replaced recognizable dance with all kinds of other goings-on, a bit similar to performance art.

For Gala, the stage was set with a slideshow of empty stages (grand, humble, utilitarian, makeshift, etc.), focusing attention on the prospect of theater as a site of interaction between performer and audience.  What followed was a gala performance given by 19 local amateur and professional dancers, representing a variety of ages, genders, ethnicities, body-types and technical dancing skills.

Festively attired in colorful layers of dancewear, they took center stage one by one to execute a series of prescribed dance directives such as “ballet,” “waltz,” or “Michael Jackson.”  With varying levels of success, each individual attempted to conform to the established category.  The “ballet” pirouettes were frequently precarious, but generally dignified.  Many of the performers found their groove with “Michael Jackson,” moon-walking across the stage to riotous approval by the audience, singing and dancing in their seats by now.

In the next section, some of the performers delivered solos of their own devising, revealing their unique self-images as dancers.  The rest of the group, like a Greek chorus, attempted to follow along.  They had exchanged costumes offstage amongst themselves to humorous effect, signaling the group pulling together in a communal effort to validate one another.  The audience played their part as well, joining in with rollicking support of the antics onstage.

The solos included a kid capering to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, a man in a wheelchair gliding across the stage with exceptional grace, and a majorette tossing her baton impressively high in the air.  The rest of the group flung their batons optimistically in the air behind her, with every hope of catching them when they came down.  It seemed an apt metaphor for the risk they were taking as performers, no matter their dancing ability.

Jérôme Bel has publicly cited Marcel Duchamp as one of his heroes.  Like Duchamp with his “ready-mades,” Bel is a master at putting a frame around what already exists and elevating it to the status of art.  Bel’s clever structuring of Gala makes it possible to see things that are real on stage, rather than dance steps that are choreographed and rehearsed.  In the “waltz” section, for instance, we could see the actual struggle of each pair to establish a rhythm together, as well as their determination to preserve the dignity of their partner.

And some things cannot be manufactured anyways, like the infectious smile of one of the performers that lit up the stage throughout the entire show: joy of that sort can only be a gift from the universe.

Jérôme Bel

September 13-15
More info at http://fringearts.com/event/gala-2/

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