Fringe Fever: Sonic Dances

Here’s my response to the first performance I attended at the 2007 Philly Fringe: Sonic Dances by Group Motion Dance Company.* Performance date: 8/31.

Sonic Dances is an outdoor, site-specific piece, starting at one of two locations (depending on performance date) at City Hall, and then moving across JFK to the courtyard (official name: Thomas Paine Plaza) outside the Municipal Services Building. It’s an enjoyable, abstract, piece that effectively responds and plays off of–although more effectively in some passages than in others–the presence of public art and sculpture in these sites.

(More details after the jump.)

This is one of the few site-based/non-ticketed performances I’ve ever attended, so I’ll admit that before arriving, I had a this unreasoning fear that I might not find the right place. I needn’t have worried. The two fellows with Live Arts/Fringe “Staff” T-shirts handing out programs in the courtyard at the heart of City Hall sort of cut into this fantasy I’d constructed about the performance appearing as a spontaneous “happening.” Still, I was grateful to know that I was where I was supposed to be.

The first section of the performance featured the dancers moving around the circumference of the rose compass mosaic in the center of the courtyard. (On certain dates, these pieces are performed in Dillworth Plaza, and I do not know how that change of venue affects things.) One dancer spent most of her time in the center of the compass, with the remaining 8 dancers in 4 pretty stable pairings (3 boy-girl, 1 girl-girl) that danced some of the time in couples and some of the time in pairs mirroring one another’s movements as they rotated the circumference in different directions and at different depth levels between the edge and the heart of the compass.

Although I don’t expect non-verbal artwork to be readily translateable into a two-sentence “here’s what it all meant” kind of statement, this first section was the one that most clearly carried something extra into my imagination, something about directionality, finding each other and finding one’s way. That notion was amusingly inverted at the various moments that commuters and passersby—this was 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, after all–stumbled across the performance and either a) had to find a polite way around the happening or b) obliviously wandered right through the middle of things.

The transition from City Hall to Paine Plaza was the least successful moment in my experience of Sonic Dances, quite simply because I didn’t see any of it. It was clear from the slowness of people ahead of me, and from the tantalizing flashes of dancers jumping I could see over everyone’s heads, that the dancers continued to perform as they went down the passageway from the courtyard to the sidewalk by JFK Boulevard. However, unless you were among the lucky half-dozen at the front of the procession, there was no way to witness this choreography—-which left at least three dozen other onlookers completely out of the game. Perhaps interspersing the dancers among the procession of onlookers might have been a better choice.

The Paine Plaza portion of the performance was full of its own (blessedly visible) transitions. The first set of dances took place near and surrounding Jacques Lipschitz’s sculpture Government of the People. In a particularly affecting passage, the dancers climbed on top of and supported one another in a perpetually moving echo of the scuplture at whose base they were positioned. Then the dancers scattered, playing among the onlookers (hee!) and the various oversized game pieces that are in the Martinez/Petropoulos/White installation Your Move. There’s enough happening during this section that I couldn’t even begin to take it all in, so I just chose a few dancers to watch until the company finished, standing together around the rim of a giant Bingo tile, doing a circular movement canon that I am dying to know whether it was improvised or not.

All told, it was a very satisfactory way to enter into my 2007 Fringe season, especially with the playfulness of making (moving) public art in a space full of other (static) public art. Highly recommended.

* N.B.: I am neither a dancer nor sufficiently knowledgable about dance to pretend to offer a strict review of the piece. I scarcely have enough vocabulary to describe dance movement in any comprehensible way. So please take this for what it is: one woman’s individual response to a work of art.

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