Figmago – Surrealistic dance spaces

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal

Philly dance fans know Meg Saligman’s artwork from her looming mural at Locust & 13th St that features former Pennsylvania Ballet star Meredith Rainey as a central figure among other area artists. Saligman’s murals in Philly stand out of the urban landscape with a magical realism that expresses the diversity of our culture and spirit of community. She works in various media and her latest is a collaboration with choreographer Brian Sanders’ JUNK called ‘Figmago Alive’ – color it 3D-kinetic mural art.

The production marks the first time Saligman’s studios on the 800 block of Bainbridge St. has been open to the public.  A crucible of industrial and fine art equipment, pieces of work in progress, paintings, sculpture, remnants of past work that is being transformed into something new.  A moveable mosaic of an artist’s creative process.

The studio guide, Travis Draper talks about public artworks as he hoists himself in a harness in front of a print of the Locust St. mural gives describes the aesthetic mission and process. He then leads the audience of 20 or so through the studio, before entering a labyrinth of rooms, the structures themselves created by Meg Saligman in tandem with JUNK designer John Howey’s apparatus on which Sanders’ dancers perform.

Then like the Mad Hatter leads the audience into the Saligman-Sanders fantasia of surreal images and acrobatic choreography performed by JUNK dancers Amelia Rose Estrada, Briannon Holstein, and Chelsea Prunty.

The audience splits into two groups and scenes are shuffled so everyone sees everything but at different points. First, some are led to a blood red room out of Moulin Rouge bordello, with a long table where we are seated, with miniature fixtures and portraits on the walls as sensual salon music plays.  Estrada is in a drop-dead red and black brocade dress and sweeps around the room. Meanwhile, we draw (or in my case scribble) the image of a dancer in silhouette behind a milky scrim built into the wall. The scene ends as Estrada and Holstein dance a fiery acrobatic tango.

An interlude follows in which we are led to a stark whited out space filled with sand and Travis instruct us to use colanders to sift any art materials in the sand. Color it huh?

More action occurs in the adjacent industrial black box with mushroom stools, as a quadruped with a long lizardry tail and mod pink spots amble about.  On the wall there is a metallic cushioned canvas which Draper and Estrada pretend to paint with water from a trough before they mount two chairs on the wall for some strategic acrobatics, pausing for a few moments for a pantomime tea party.

The canvas vanishes and Estrada is harnessed to a cyclone fence, industrial electronica blasts turn into a contortionist solo that has her dangling in precarious and sometimes frantic knots.

Another brief interlude of meditation while projected from above, with acid bleed colors, abstract graphics stream, and fantastical creatures. In another room Holstein is in a slow solo of minimal movement on a tall round table in the next room as long ribbon spins around and gives the effect of an inverted vortex, hypnotic to the point of needing a Dramamine.

Draper appears through sliding doors and hands everyone pieces of a puzzle to one of Saligman’s future murals. While us kids are occupied piecing it together on the table playing with the puzzles, there is a dance tryst with Draper and Prunty, as we move to the last room, a dreamscape of billowing white fabric, and icy blue vistas and a teardrop trapeze hovering.

Estrada is on an illuminated orb en arabesque moving through various positions.  A scintillating club groove pulsing as the dancer’s spin and sculpt bodyscapes in the air. Sanders’ sound design and music tracks are always transporting, but are especially hallucinatory here.

The aerial acrobatics in Figmago is lyrical and dialed back in terms of difficulty compared to other JUNK shows, Sanders admirable creating aesthetic balance with Saligman’s 3-D mural, instead of choreographing perilous feats to dazzle the audience.

In the finale, Travis invites everyone to try on random costumes, masks or headdresses. Improvise characters in silhouette behind a scrim or sit in a rowboat to ride the artistic waves. By that time Draper was gathering input for future mural performance and everyone on board to keep this installment of Figmago alive.

JUNK enjoys a huge following every year at the Fringe Festival and Sanders’ is collaborating in unexpected ways, two years ago with Pennsylvania Ballet and next year will be in the concert hall with conductor Yannick-Nezet Seguin the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stay tuned.

Figmago Alive with BrianSanders’ JUNK remaining performances continue through July 29.
The Figmago Alive artwork exhibit is extended into the fall.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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