Folk Artists in Space: Almanac’s Ben Grinberg on EXILE 2588

Hhere at Phindie, we’ve been long-time fans of Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, Philadelphia’s trailblazing contemporary acrobatics company, and their work seems to keep getting bigger and better. This Fringe brings , the company’s most ambitious show to date, EXILE 2588: a seventy minute adaptation of the story of Io set 500 years in the future (when we have trans-humanism, artificial enhancements to the human body). The narrative is accompanied by an original song cycle by Chickabiddy (Aaron Cromie and Emily Schuman) and subjected to the under the outside eye of Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Dan Rothenberg. If that description isn’t sufficiently enticing, let’s hear more from company cofounder Ben Grinberg. [Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street] September 8-23, 2016;  fringearts.com/exile-2588.

Ben Grinberg (center) and EXILE 2588 collaborators (l-r Mark Wong, Nick Gillette, Ben, Lauren Johns, Nicole Burgio). Photo by Kate Raines.

Ben Grinberg (center) and EXILE 2588 collaborators (l-r Mark Wong, Nick Gillette, Ben, Lauren Johns, Nicole Burgio). Photo by Kate Raines.

Phindie: How would you describe Almanac’s aesthetic? 

Ben Grinberg: When we were in Mexico, we were asked why we call ourselves “Almanac” — which I think is a related question. The answer we came up with — in Spanish — was that we love the idea of a performance company being like an Almanac because an Almanac is a book of folk wisdom, based on collective observations and gut feelings. In certain ways we consider ourselves folk artists — we don’t think of ourselves as highly polished acrobats or dancers, but there is an earnestness and sincerity in what we do that is charming and often funny, and based on our collective sensibilites.

Phindie: Who most enjoys your work?

Ben: People who aren’t sticklers for form or technique tend to enjoy our work. It’s important to us that the things we make are accessible to everyone without any previous body of knowledge — that the work we makes hits you on a visceral and deep level. It can challenge you intellectually but it’s more important that on some deeper level you’ll be moved.

Phindie: How does EXILE 2588 build upon Almanac’s past shows?

Ben: We’ve always made narrative works which incorporate acrobatics and dance. Communitas was wordless, Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes was a non-linear story based on a version of ourselves as a seafaring cult. In Exile 2588 we are maintaining the mode but bringing the narrative into a much crisper focus, telling a complete and timeless story from back to front.

Phindie: What was the genesis of the piece?

Ben: We’re a consensus-driven collective of devising artists and acrobats, so it can be pretty hard to accurately track where any idea comes from. But the following is a non-exhaustive list of things that happened that created the mistform that is coalescing into Exile 2588:

Nick Jonczak, Almanac company member and dramaturg/outside eye for the show, insists that we are the generation of human beings who will live forever. This is a genuinely held belief, and he’s been obsessed with and doing his own research on artificial enhancements to the human body for years. The rest of us aren’t quite as convinced, but when there’s a disagreement, there’s tension, and we were all very interested in the moral implications of such a future.

[Company member] Adam Kerbel, before he moved across the country, sat at our kitchen table and, by reading a Dylan Thomas poem, made an impassioned proposal for a show about blasting off, escaping gravity, and on the somatic and relativistic implications of super speed on human bodies. As it turned out, it didn’t work out for Adam to be too involved in the creation of the show, but we all miss him and working on a show about space travel is a nice way to keep him in the room.

I’ve wanted to make a show based on “Prometheus Bound” for a while, and we didn’t want to tell a story with another white male protagonist… Enter Io, and all the ways her tale of wandering resonates with contemporary issues about women’s control over their own bodies, and the dignity — or not — of controlling our own mortality.

Phindie: What did Dan Rothenberg bring to the piece?

Ben: Dan is obviously an amazing director, but because of scheduling he wasn’t able to be in the room all that often. So he’s sort of been this amazing whirlwind who comes in every so often and tells us either that we’re on the right track, or that we are… incorrect about the way what we’re doing is being read. He’s frequently reminded us that we don’t need to do too much. It also turns out he’s a huge sci-fi nerd, so his experience in that realm is always helpful.

Phindie: What was it like having him as an outside eye?

Ben: I can’t speak for everyone, but I know at first I was super nervous to have Dan in the room, because he’s such an expert, not to mention a new father, and we didn’t want to waste his time. I think at several points in the process just knowing he was coming forced us to work harder, fight more for our proposals and defend them more rigorously.

Phindie: How did the collaboration with Chickabiddy come about?

Ben: At the Fringe registration launch party back in May, we were performing and improvising while Chickabiddy played some songs on the cabaret stage. We ended up finishing out the set behind them, improvising with them as they played “Margarita.” Something felt unlikely, but right about that moment of performance. We asked them if they wanted to make a fringe show with us, and they said “definitely.”

Phindie: What do you like about the collaboration?

Ben: Chickabiddy’s music is so beautiful, I’ve joked to a few people that all we as Almanac had to do for this show is not screw that up. They’re prolific songwriters and their songs just fill you up when you hear them — it’s easy to give an emotional performance when you’ve got their music as a scene partner. And Emily [Schubert] and Aaron [Cromie] are both experienced theater makers, so their insights into the ways that music and movement work together have been valuable.

Phindie: If you could have any artificial enhancement to your body what would it be?

Ben: I’d probably swap out my legs for super powerful springs so I could actually tumble. I think. But considering I’m scared of tattoos and body piercings, I probably would chicken out of the operation at the last minute.

Phindie: Do you have any other picks for this year’s festival?

Ben: Obviously, I can’t wait to see the changes they’re making Tribe of Fools’ Antihero and what wonders Applied Mechanics will serve up with Feed — and it helps that we’re sharing the Bride with both of those awesome companies. I’m also very excited to see Leah Stein’s Portal — Bellows Falls was so achingly beautiful last Fringe — along with the Mediums’ One Way Red, and Nichole Quenelle’s The Long Tides, among many many others.

In terms of presented Fringe, I saw Jerome Bel’s collaboration with Theatre Hora, Disabled Theater, a few years ago and was moved to tears, so I’m particularly excited for Gala, and simply saying the names “Nichole Canuso and Geoff Sobelle” should be enough to make anyone smile — so if I don’t see anything else, I’ll find my way in to Pandaemonium.

Phindie: Thanks Ben!

EXILE 2588
Almanac Dance Circus Theatre
Painted Bride Art Center
230 Vine Street
Sept 8 at 8pm
Sept 9 at 7pm
Sept 10 at 10pm
Sept 11 at 2pm
Sept 13 + 14 at 7pm
Sept 15 + 18  at 10pm
Sept 19 at 7pm
Sept 21 at 9pm
Sept 22 + 23 at 6pm
fringearts.com/event/exile-2588-7/

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.