Dancefusion hosts mixed bill at FringeArts

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Artistic Director Gwendolyn Bye presented her company, Dancefusion to the Fringe Festival for the 10th consecutive year, with concerts at the Performance Garage, September 13 & 14.   Bye collaborated with Megan Flynn Dance and Dance Iquail for the Dance Collection showcase of premieres and a rare contemporary gem from 1975 by choreographer Mary Anthony.

Janet Pilla Marini, a longtime Dancefusion company member, choreographed the opening piece, “Dawn Chorus.”  In the opening scene, the eight dancers looked hurried to crisscross the stage in gazelle jetes and underpowered barrel rolls. Set to mystic gamelan/tabla music by Inward Coil, the choreography slowed to more fluid ensemble configurations laced with yogic dance expression. The group in sculptural unison steps stuck as a meditative movement invocation.

Megan Flynn, Sarah Braviak Reid, and Amelia Rose Estrada co-choreographed and danced an excerpt from their “Knots and Ties,” which had an improv feel, but soon hinted at a relationship drama. Reid and Estrada at first curled (or collapsed) on the floor and Flynn standing a distance and moving tentatively around them in tentative or distraught gestural motion. The trio starts to dart around the stage, and each other, abstractly in their own dance zones, then suddenly changes and they fly into quick tempo energized communication with each other.

Whether this scenario is about the knots of relationship and the ties that bind, or not, makes one want to see the whole drama play out.  Later, Annie Corrao and Katrina Juliette Muffley also collaborated with Flynn for their duet ‘Tethered’ another excerpt from ‘Ties’ that was more lighthearted but struck as a sketchy interlude.

“A Time for A Season” by Dancefusion choreographer Camille Halsey followed. The full company piece is scored to a driving chamber music orchestral score by Zoe Keating. The ten dancers in long black tunics clustered in the corner of the stage are arms sculpturally entwined over their heads, they pulse forward. The choreography reflective of the rhythmic counterpoint of the strings and a haunting piano lead that floats through, with some thrilling contemporary balletic moments. The full ensemble passages flow, and in this performance danced with full-on attack and ensemble esprit.

Choreographer Mary Anthony died five years ago at the age of 97 and to see her work so powerful and impeccably revived in Bye’s reconstruction of Anthony’s “Seascape” choreographed in 1975 is a stunner. A program note that the piece is dedicated to Anthony’s love of the sea and the wildlife on Fire Island. Scored to an ambient music soundscape by John La Montane, the ballet depicts a flock of birds, in their beauty of flight, their intricate mating dances and their completely unique physicality and riveting dance-theater.

The bird’s elaborate mating dances look savage or adversarial or present as ritualized seductions. Janet Pilla Marini and Julian Darden state the primal themes in the first of four mating dances.  The other couples, Julia Spooner/Martin Skocelas Hunter, Kate Lombardi/Omar Frederick Pratt, and the finale with Camille Halsey/Caroline Butcher-  also danced with thrilling technical clarity.

Suddenly there is an aerial scramble as menacing as a gull feeding frenzy. Anthony duplicating the raw drive of nature without softening its stoic violence. The finale has dance birds swarm at the edge of the stage, in formation with one leg drawn up, but heads darting around, as ‘Seascapes’ sounds swell. Fokine’s Firebird has nothing on the avian realness that Anthony has conjured for the contemporary dancer.

Choreographer, Christopher Ralph’s solo “Night Falls” representing Dance Iquail is bursting with athleticism and the dynamic stage presence of dancer Ankhtra Maa Brivett Battle. Battle’s expressive grace is just as impressive as his explosive aerials and mach-speed pirouettes.  The solo was followed by a short film by artistic director Iquail Shaheed about his life growing up in North Philly, his strong relationship with his grandmother and his artistic vision as an African-American gay choreographer.

The closing piece another Dancefusion premiere “Pictures in Glass Frames” by Omar Frederick Pratt.  The full company enters and places chairs around the stage in what could be a group therapy session, especially when select dancers move into each other’s space in flash confrontations. The chairs are shuffled various flash solos and duets suggest turmoil and resolution. Pratt’s “Pictures” strikes as a middle draft piece, under-rehearsed in key moments, but has the core ideas for a compelling dance-theater piece.

Gwendolyn Bye’s mix of developing work and a showcase for student and professional dancers makes Dancefusion the company that represents a commitment to many aesthetic schools of modern dance. The revivals of underrepresented American choreographic masters like Mary Anthony and Anna Sokolow, just to mention two regularly programmed by Dancefusion

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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