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There’s nothing to hide at the Wintry Mix Festival

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

The Wintry Mix Performance Festival at Bryn Mawr College this past weekend presented two separate lineups of artists who are fixtures of Philadelphia’s boundary-pushing performing arts scene. The two headlining artists, Nichole Canuso and Cynthia Hopkins, invited a diverse collection of performers to join them in a cabaret of “social and political catharsis.” They ran the gamut from dancers, singers, and comedians, to an all-female punk rock band and the drag queen Martha Graham Cracker. Many of the acts tackled themes of feminism, sexuality, and gender – and suffice it to say that reverence for the patriarchy was not on the bill.

The festival’s first night featured excerpts from two in-development works by choreographer Nichole Canuso.  In the opening (and most understated) piece of the evening, The Octopus and the Interview, five dancers passed a microphone around, holding it in front of each other’s faces, but not saying much. A group of distinct individuals, they expanded and contracted collectively as they negotiated the space around one another. Later, Canuso eased us into her personal world in the solo work Sneakers, alternating gestural movements with story-telling. She operated amidst a floor pattern of masking tape she put down to represent specific areas or objects in the house she grew up in. Brief yet intriguing, both works sparked anticipation for their upcoming evening-length versions.

Also on Friday night: A Hard Time, an eye-popping, body-based work that was conceived and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Jess Conda (it will premiere as a longer work at Fringe Arts in May). In the first section, Kidwell delivered a stuffy, academic lecture on the nature of humor, exhorting the audience to join her in a round of forced laughter. Most importantly, Kidwell stressed, is that humor should never cross the line that makes anyone feel unsafe. In the second session, she and Conda shattered that rule, breaking into an outrageous, ambigenderous strip-show that culminated with a new genre of entertainment best described as butt-cheek puppetry.

Friday evening ended with its danciest number, a sweet duet by Canuso, in the guise of an old-fashioned gentleman, and the glamourous Martha Graham Cracker.  The contrast between the diminutive Canuso and her partner billed as the “tallest drag-queen in the world,” was both touching and tender. The singer Eliza Hardy Jones belted out Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” and Rhonda Moore and Chelsea Murphy joined in the dance, building to a feel-good conclusion.

On the festival’s second night, musical performance artist Cynthia Hopkins charmed the audience with her funny, low-key banter and rich, twangy voice in a series of short episodes that alternated with the evening’s other performers. Amongst her feats: she accompanied herself on the piano, accordion, and electric guitar; she transformed from a cleaning lady into a sexy pirate; and she bore witness to an anonymous “naked survivor” in an unsettling five minutes of silence in which she sat in a chair, exposed, with a paper bag over her head.

Saturday night also included choreographer Meg Foley performing a solo excerpt from her long-term performance project Action is Primary. In constant movement, Foley verbally articulated her movements as she simultaneously executed them. Her body got tangled up like in a game of Twister as she announced, “I’m putting my hand on the ground. I’m bending my knee.” Gradually, she wove into her narrative the idea that she would soon be asking the audience to do something. The “something” turned out to be helping her to take off all of her clothes. She ended up wrapped up (along with a willing audience member) in a sheet of white fabric, like a giant snowball. Why would she do that? There was no time to reflect; another act was about to begin.

Appearing for the second night in a row, Martha Graham Cracker treated the audience to her origin story, removing her wig so that alter-ego Dito van Reigersberg could explain how he came up his drag queen persona. In the process, van Reigersberg cajoled the audience into joining him in a dance class, performed a feverish demonstration of Graham technique, and wrapped it all up with a soulful rendition of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love.”

Over the course of the festival, there was plenty more: A raunchy feminist comedy set by Adrienne Truscott; a musical performance by Eliza Hardy Jones; a mixed-bill of swapped identities by Annie Wilson and friends; a cranked-up punk set by The Bandits, who proclaimed “I don’t believe in a system that don’t believe in my sisters.” Some audiences might have been perplexed by the offerings in Wintry Mix, but the audience gathered at Bryn Mawr College loved it. The revelry continued after the performances with dance parties hosted by DJ Pax Ressler and soul line dancing led by David and Selena Earley.

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