Dance at the Fringe: Lew Whittington on the Fringe line-up and other insights

Republished by kind permission from The Dance Journal.

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Nick Stuccio was in a cool summer button down instead of his signature black T-shirt for a press conference a few weeks ago in the FringeArts theater to present the line up shows in the 2015 Fringe Festival. The FringeArts building on the Delaware River waterfront houses the 232 seat studio amphitheater, La Peg Restaurant and Haas Biergarten entrance in the shadow of the Walt Whitman Bridge has now been in full operation since last August and keeps the annual festival on the public radar year round.

“We saw the potential unfold over the past year,” Stuccio said. “We wanted a definitive festival central location as place to come back together and hang out here under the bridge. We’ve had the time to figure things out, so we designed the festival this year building on that. ”

Stuccio assured that is not meant to supplant the festival that occupies the city for three weeks in September. Stuccio and his team work to keep the independent spirit of the first Fringe Festivals of presenting shows everywhere that would otherwise be ignored or commercially not viable. He spoke to the festival’s ongoing commitment to push the performing arts envelope in Philadelphia in substantive ways. “Everything we do is related to everything we’ve done,” Stuccio said, “We’re always looking at the things in the festivals that worked and things that didn’t work.”

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photo: Gregory Holt’s 2000 Movements

Stuccio also touched on some new projects including ‘Digital Fringe’ designed for mobile apps for a series of live streaming performances and visual arts collaborations. Even with the FringeArts’ building the festival’s main hub, Stuccio assured that is not meant to replace the festival being a citywide event. The festival even spans out to the suburbs this year, but Philly Neighborhoods are the backdrop for the bulk of the more than 100 events and performances.

Dance fans have seen a scaling back from its once dance-heavy event, off-set now with more programming at the theater throughout the year. This year’s festival presents over 30 dance events in the ‘Neighborhood Fringe’ category, with work as divergent as Gregory Holt’s pure dance solo 2000 Movements, to the dance polemics of UNARMED about racism in America by dance-visual artist Arielle Pina.

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Photo: Olive Prince Dance by K Chow Studios

With many returning festival favorites like Brian Sanders’ JUNK, Annex Dance Company, Gunnar Montana, Olive Prince Dance, just to mention a few, presenting new work. There is a slate of mixed genre pieces with physical theater elements from ‘ Tribe of Fools Zombies…with Guns to Kill Will with the actors from Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater performing Bardian battle scenes featuring precision fight choreography.

“We have a vision of bringing an unlimited amount of artists,” Stuccio assured. There has been criticism some years from artists and audiences who question whether the international artists of the ‘curated’ Festival get too much attention and festival resources or should the focus be more on local artists. The Philly based troupes for the most part have to self-produce their work to be in the festival. Despite or because of that, once the festival is underway audience and industry buzz, some of those performances become the breakout shows and have proved the most exciting events of past festivals.

Available Light, Photo by: Craig T. Mathew

Among the curated shows , the reconstruction of Lucinda Childs’ 1983 ballet Available Light with an original score by John Adams and production design by famed architect Frank Gehry, has sparked the most interest.

“It’s not going to be seen many places… and I’m delighted to bring this to Philadelphia. We are among the five presenters from around the world to bring this work back to life. Stuccio said “this is one of the biggest works we’ve ever presented. It will be at the 33rd St. Armory on Drexel’s campus. (Childs’) is one of the most important American choreographers and yet her work is rarely seen in the US. Her vernacular is minimal. There are about six steps in ‘Available Light’ that beautifully evolves …into a seminal dance piece.”

Other hightlights:

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Photo: Soul Project courtesy of FringeArts

Soul Project. Conceived by Venezuelan-Netherlands dancer- choreographer David Zambrano, whose brand of dance communalism has been an international sensation. Stuccio called Zambrano “ A highly regarded dance teacher, sought after all over the world, for his improvisational structures and he is an inventive choreographer who is known for getting the most out of his dancers,” “Soul Project” is cast with diverse group of international dance artists, specializing in highly expressive formats of which the audience invariably becomes part. In the music mix are tunes from Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and James Brown inspiration for the borderless dance expressionism.

– Still Standing You by Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido (Belguim/Portugal) Stuccio admits is “one of my favorite shows. It is about masculinity, all the crazy ways men can relate to each other. It’s incredibly physical and they’ve been doing it all over the world. Pieter has been emerging internationally as a force in contemporary performance.” Stigmas about men in dance obviously not an issue here or maybe it is the issue.

– Jo Strømgren Kompani (Norway), former Soviet dissidents with a style that Stuccio describes as “intensely physical.” They will be performing separate dramatic-dance laced works in repertory including an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House The other two, The Border about the physical dynamics of a couple and There, are more movement based. The latter is the danciest of the three, but in an interview Strømgren himself wonders if There is “Dance or theater? Political or slapstick?”

There is an uptick in music programming this year and the Festival Late Night series has with free and ticketed events running every night during the festival is conceived by award winning choreographer/visual artist Kate Watson-Wallace and Philadelphia DJ/composer King Britt. Dance will invariably break out.

Returning in the cabaret is poet-actor-dancer Jaamil Kosoko for his current solo work Black Male Revisited a retrospective piece in part dealing with “the fear of black male sexuality” has been touring in art galleries and universities. Kosoko, now based in New York, is remembered by festival audiences as the diva dance avian J-Luv hovering over all the action. At the press conference, Kosoko’s video photo might have been to revealing, when Nick looked up he quickly cued the next image.

Concluding his presentation Stuccio hinted, but did not name a “very famous guest” on stage with drag diva extraordinaire Martha Graham Cracker (aka Dito van Reigersberg) for the closing night festival performance. Knowing MGC, it begs the question, could it be the papacy or just a pickup Broadway Baby in a better dress.

For a complete schedule of events go to FringeArts.com

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About the author

Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

Lewis Whittington’s articles on the performing arts have appeared in several print and online publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Advocate, Dance Magazine, American Theatre Magazine, Huffington Post, Playbill and Stage Directions.