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The New York International Fringe Festival, a 16-day event celebrating experimental dance, theater, poetry, puppetry, spoken word, and multimedia, opens Friday. It’s so densely packed that audience members may pore over the program guide, head out to see a specific group, and end up bouncing from show to show; the intrepid could catch as many as eight a day. If they could keep up that pace for a couple of weeks, the $350 Lunatic Pass might come to seem a bargain.

This year’s fifth season includes nonstop shows from noon to 2 a.m., performed by 198 groups in 20 fully equipped theaters within a 15-block radius of Houston Street and Avenue A in the East Village. Individual tickets range from free to $12.

The idea for FringeNYC arose in 1996 when the Present Company, a not-for-profit Off-Off Broadway theater troupe, was looking at the possibility of entering its production of Americana Absurdum, written by Village Voice staffer Brian Parks, in Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. “I started putting together a budget of what it might cost to get 12 or 13 people to Scotland, and it was exorbitant,” recalls producing director Elena K. Holy. “John Clancy, our artistic director, wondered why there wasn’t a fringe festival in New York City, the performance mecca.”

The pair tested the waters by placing announcements in weekly newspapers, calling a town meeting to discuss the possibility of mounting a local “fringe.” Three hundred eager artists attended; Clancy and Holy knew they had the necessary support.

In the first year, 1997, the majority of people at performances, often held in storefronts and cafés, were European tourists. “We had concierges from major midtown hotels calling and requesting 50 or 60 programs,” recalls Holy. The appeal to Europeans is not surprising: The original Fringe began in Scotland in 1947, as a reaction against the elite programming of the Edinburgh International Festival. The Edinburgh Fringe has become the model for similar festivals worldwide.

FringeNYC tries to keep a balance among genres, not always easy when many artists integrate disciplines. This year more than 400 applications, complete with videotapes and impassioned cover letters, poured into the converted auto body shop on Stanton Street that houses the Present Company. From February through April, an adjudication panel critiqued the applications and ranked them. In April they posted their first, second, and third choices on a bulletin board, creating a blueprint of the festivities.

The dance section of that board has expanded by 25 percent since the festival began; 20 troupes are represented this year, from as far away as Barcelona, Tucson, and Salt Lake City, as well as commuter groups from Jersey City, the length of Long Island, and the Bronx. Choreographer Ben Munisteri, a veteran of FringeNYC 1998, believes the increased interest on the part of the dance community is partly because of him. Munisteri’s performance of his signature piece, Late-Night Sugar Flight, at the festival led to a season at Danspace and a guest choreographer position at Rutgers University. His works have since been produced at venues including P.S. 122, Central Park SummerStage, Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park, and Symphony Space, as well as at the 92nd Street Y’s winter season at the Duke on 42nd Street.

The festival offers emerging troupes like Bryon Davis’s Bronx-based Eloquence Performance Company their first exposure to Manhattan audiences (at University Settlement on Eldridge Street, from Friday through August 17). Out-of-town troupes, such as Heston/Richardson Dancetheatre from Salt Lake City, seize the opportunity to make a New York debut (at the Henry Street Settlement’s Experimental Theater on Grand Street, from August 15 through 22). Dance artists who have already made their mark around town can combine forces to broaden their audience base.

Artists front a $40 application fee; groups selected pay a participation fee of $350. They are guaranteed five to seven 60-minute performances in a single theater, at least two or three in “prime” evening slots, and they keep a percentage of each ticket sold. The adjudicators go for innovative choreography accessible to a wide-ranging audience, explains Holy. Eva Dean Dance Company’s Balls, Balls, Balls mobilizes small pink handballs as well as 54-inch “Physioballs,” in a work that might appeal to kids; it opens Friday and continues through August 26 at the Present Company’s Theatorium on Stanton Street.

The Foureographers, a quartet of New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduates, have presented their works separately throughout Manhattan. Chris Elam’s Misnomer Dance Theater performed at P.S. 122, Jennifer Muller’s HATCH series, and the Movement Salon. Chris Yon and Justin Jones coproduce the Chris & Justin Medicine Show at the Gershwin Hotel. Jennifer Harmer danced in work by Paul Taylor and Nicholas Leichter during her NYU training. At FringeNYC they’ll collaborate on a program called “Movement Zoo” (August 17 through 25 at University Settlement).

While an undergraduate at Brown, Elam spent a year in a small village in Indonesia, living with a dance master and studying traditional forms. During that time he developed an interest in transforming his body into animal shapes. In Cast-Iron Crutches, he performs sharp, angular, Balinese-inspired movements. In Bellyache, Yon and Jones partner one another as if engaged in a battle of wits, employing their difference in stature to execute off-kilter lifts. Harmer’s pedestrian movement develops characters ranging from a crass pool cleaner to an overzealous lifeguard in her View From the Poolside.

Some festival works interpret topics ripped from the headlines. In Heston/Richardson Dancetheatre’s multimedia work B$LL, dancer-choreographer Melissa Heston portrays a wannabe Bill Gates wearing a man’s power suit and nerd glasses. She literally climbs the corporate ladder and dances to Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String.” The provocative text by director and playwright Helen Richardson, interspersed with Heston’s playful, Chaplin-esque movement, questions the American dream and whether technology is the new religion.

In Mark Gomez’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, Eloquence Performance Company explores an abusive family relationship, evoking the power dynamic in a troubled marriage; the husband literally steps on his wife as she lies on the ground, her back arched. Bryon Davis’s For Mature Audiences Only, a bluesy jazz piece, examines voyeurism. “At a club, when two people are sultry and sexy, you tend to watch even if you’re thinking, ‘Get a room,’ ” says Davis. “We give audiences something more to look at than technical dancers.”

FringeNYC’s organized chaos is not for the intransigent balletomane. Choreographers come together to break conventions and stir up emotions. “It’s the essence of the city compacted,” says Holy.

See the dance listings for complete performance schedules, call the FringeNYC Hotline at 420-8877, or visit