Once More with Feeling

You swore you'd never watch a hemophiliac raise the spirit of a dead cat again. And then the Fringe Festival returned.

Choreographer Risa Cohen's airborne fairy tale The Angel and the Tower, created in collaboration with Circus Juventas and premiering at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, explores the angst of a man imprisoned in a tower. Searching for an angel, he's finally seduced by Humanity (i.e., physical and emotional risk). "I'm trying to pull modern dance into circus arts," says Cohen. "For me, modern dance lacks gravity-defying athleticism, and circus lacks poetic expression."

At a recent rehearsal in a very hot and sweaty gym at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Cohen and five of her performers lock limbs with apparatus including a rope and harness, aerial hoops, and long swatches of fabric known as "tissue." "The group is more like a collective," says Cohen. "I'm just the facilitator, the one who ties it all together and gets it onstage."

Dancers Denise Armstead and Bill Gladen work on a duet for rope and harness. Gladen sweeps through space in a rock-climber harness attached to a free swinging rope, while Armstead scrambles around him on the floor. "It's about the power dynamic in a relationship," says Cohen. "Does the harness allow you more freedom or hold you in? Is the freestanding person more or less in control?" Later, Cohen, as the angel, climbs the tissue (read: tower), smoothly wrapping the fabric around various parts of her body, then dropping precipitously toward the mat. "Dance is finding the humanity in the tricks," says Cohen. "Even the thrill of the drop, a standard routine in circus, takes on another dimension. You're vulnerable--there's an emotional feeling when you fall, which must be communicated."

Additional performers in the show include members of Circus Juventas, professional acrobats and aerialists, fire dancers, trapeze artists, and a Big Ten Gymnast of the Year fresh from a stint at San Diego's Sea World. "I'm aiming at a theatrical arc that spans the playful, the seductive, the thought-provoking," says Cohen. Whatever the upcoming performances bring, Cohen and her collaborators have certainly generated a petri dish in the sky where fresh ideas can gestate and multiply. --Linda Shapiro

The Angel and the Tower
The Ice House, Aug. 13, 8:30 p.m.; Aug.14, 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.; Aug. 15, 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

 

Four History-Based Steps to Becoming a Terminal Fringe Type

Unlike other Fringes, the Minnesota Fringe is an unjuried festival; the selection process is strictly first-come-first-served. Perhaps, then, what most unites this year's nearly 200 Fringe producers is that they're all reasonably punctual. The festival might tap into some kind of zeitgeist each year, but there isn't really a Fringe aesthetic, unless we're just missing what links The Booty Cruise to Seussical the Musical (possible answers: the English language, bipedal performers, free pickles at the door). Certainly Fringe shows aren't exclusively or even dominantly what we might honestly call fringe-y, though we feel that a core outsider mentality, or at least an active sense of whimsy, should and does remain at the heart of the festival. With that in mind, we asked some of our writers to pick a theater artist, from any time in history, who somehow represents one or several unofficial Fringe tenets. --Dylan Hicks

 

1. Be Iconoclastic and Flamboyant
Jack Smith's 24-Hour Performance Art

In 1993, I saw Jack Smith channeled by the late actor Ron Vawter at Walker Art Center's Out There series. Though I'd lived in New York in the '60s, when Smith was at the peak of his flamboyant-gay-artiste fame, I had no idea who he was. In that performance, written by Smith and Gary Indiana, Vawter lounged on a ratty settee like some louche odalisque, fiddling with a schlocky Egyptian headdress and the strands of dime-store beads that festooned his bare chest. Here was a man about to crawl out of his skin. A mass of tics and half-completed gestures, he drifted through fantastic monologues, discarding narrative coherence as easily as he peeled off a bevy of wardrobe accessories. Lines like "Cheap jewelry is always crumbling off me" stung with the shock of the familiar. Wow, me too! I thought.

Smith, who died in 1989, teetered on the edge of New York's underground art scene of the '60s. A protean trickster inhabiting a range of colorful personas, he made outrageous movies and created live performances in his loft. Flaming Creatures, his best-known film, features a demimonde of drag queens and transvestites indulging in an orgy of Hollywood kitsch, complete with schmaltzy Orientalia, vampirism, and transgressive Dionysian revels. The film, which featured many of Andy Warhol's veteran performers, eventually became embroiled in a major censorship battle. A section of the 1968 congressional record described it as "five unrelated and badly filmed sequences [featuring]...homosexuals dancing together and other disconnected erotic activity."

But his films are only part of the story. Smith was a performance artist before we had heard of such creatures, and his performing instinct informed his entire stylized and completely discombobulated life (the congressional record got that part right). The art of total transformation was certainly his. Warhol described working with Smith, who performed in Warhol's 1964 film Dracula Batman: "He claimed that as he put his makeup on, he was slowly transforming himself, letting his soul pass out through his eyes into the mirror and back into him as Dracula, and he had this theory about how everyone was 'vampirical' to an extent because they 'made unreasonable demands.'"

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