Fringe Benefits

A Personal Odyssey on the Lower East Side

New York's annual Fringe Festival—a 17-day marathon of nearly 200 shows in 20 downtown theaters—lures its audience with the prospect of discovery. It offers rediscovery too, through visiting spaces rich in the history of neighborhoods and the cultures they've sheltered as well as the history of cutting-edge creativity. For a veteran, art-hungry New Yorker, personal history is likely to be involved as well. I saw a quartet of shows in one day at four different venues (a typical agenda for a Fringe devotee) and constantly felt I was returning to roots.

Dagmar Spain and her colleagues in Dance Imprints presented Appearancesin the Phantom of the Opera-type cellar of the Culture Project at the eastern end of Bleecker Street, just a couple of blocks from where, looking out my bedroom window, writing my first dance pieces at a rickety card table, I watched Soho begin its transformation from light-manufacturing district to hub of avant-garde culture. Appearances conjures up three generations—pale, frail girlchild, feisty heroine and her intimates, a pair of robust middle-agers—who find, as do we all, that the ties that bind create ample opportunity for confusion, frustration, exasperation, and rage. This barely functional "family" reveals its fraught connections in a series of vignettes featuring abstract movement spiked with expressive gesture, pedestrian behavior, and music-hall style song and dance. The mature couple, Francine Roussel and Ronald B. Stratton, were by far the most skilled and compelling performers; Roussel also directed. Spain herself, responsible for the choreography, doesn't command a rich or eloquent movement vocabulary. What she has is a keen sense of the variety of human experience and the conviction that it lies at the heart of work for the stage.

One-(the Other), the dancier of a pair of programs given by the U.K.'s Perpetual Motion Theatre, held forth at the Theatre for the New City, a near neighbor of the meccas of innovative dance theater, Danspace St. Mark's and P.S.122. For the dedicated fan, the area is a second hometown. One enriches the local tradition, illuminating the experience of a clumsy, soulful antihero—a wanderer who's trying to decode the customs of an alien urban civilization—by means of movement and text backed by a video landscape. The collaborative effort of eight artists (four of whom perform), it conjures up scenes that are consistently interesting, occasionally funny, often touching, and regularly fueled by canny leaps of the imagination. The standout in the excellent quartet of actor-dancers was Philippe Spall, a natural for the protagonist, who is a kind of holy fool.

Regina Nejman's feisty feminism at The Fringe
photo: Julie Lemberger
Regina Nejman's feisty feminism at The Fringe

Regina Nejman presented her exuberant Maria Vai Com as Outras (Maria Who Follows the Others) at University Settlement on Rivington Street, in the heart of a neighborhood that has sheltered successive waves of immigrants, my grandparents among them. Today it is proudly multicultural and multilingual. Nejman herself comes from Brazil, and her choreography reflects a similar rich mix. It springs from the culture into which she was born and her successive peregrinations in pursuit of her career. Capoeira, gymnastics, classical ballet, and jazz-inflected modern dance are brought together in service of a feisty feminist agenda and invigorated by a percussive beat. Despite the Brazilian saying co-opted for the title of the piece, Nejman's multiple Marias are vividly unique. Sexy, tough, and full of spunk, they're role models for our times.

As its title indicates, something may have been lost in translation in Beringia, the Root of Asian, presented by the Tokyo-based dance company Rakudo. A rite-of-passage deal in faux-mythology mode, it's executed in a combination of mid-century modern dance and jazz, complete with incidental songs, as if the perpetrators had been inspired by viewing too many videos of yesteryear's Broadway musicals. Possibly, as with other pop-cultural manifestations in contemporary Japan, deep irony is intended, but the sappy tone of the piece made me doubt that. This ill-conceived show was given in the jewel-box Harry De Jur Playhouse of the Henry Street Settlement—where, as a young teen, I first seriously studied dance and dance-making, under the wizards Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis. In that perfect little theater I first performed for an audience beyond that of family and friends. I suspect that nothing can destroy nor even erode the magic of the place in which one first discovers the power of lyric theater.

 
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