2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘The Performers’ at University City Arts League

The Performers, directed by Erica Janko at the University City Arts League, is a layered contemporary performance piece that also serves as social commentary without a clear thesis – allowing audience members to assign their own judgments to its assertions.

Given the nature of the piece, it’s hard to determine when exactly it began. I was given a piece of paper that said “You can take action.” to serve as my ticket. The room was packed with rows of metal folding chairs set up so that audience members were either facing each other or otherwise directly within eyesight. Cameras projected three different views of the space onto 3 of the 4 walls with the other wall being a full-length mirror one would find in a dance studio, essentially ensuring all audience members were visible to each other and made part of the space. Female-presenting dancers (which is the term I will use to refer to those who had made the piece) lined the room, slowly shifting from pose to pose. These dancers wore everyday clothes, all appearing as versions of everyday people. Eventually, a young woman (Janko herself) sat in a chair at the far end of the room and began describing actions an audience member was taking.

The Performers. Photo courtesy of FringeArts.

The Performers. Photo by Rhiannon Smith.

I was certain I could see who was making these movements – an older man at the cap of a row – but was proven wrong as the description and movement grew out of sync. That man was actually following her directions, whereas a younger man was the generator of her text. As the description grew increasingly frenetic, dancers burst forth from off the walls and among the crowd – about half of the dancers had been sitting among the audience the entire time.

A chaotic improvisation followed, eventually giving way to the dancers pressing themselves against the walls while Janko filmed the audience on an iPhone that was also projected live to a screen in the room. A dance then emerged from this section, during which it became clear that the dancers were embodying some aspect of femininity – sexuality, the “strong woman” archetype, etc.

Halfway through this section the dancers adjusted their clothes to more fully embody their exploration – some taking clothes off to reveal more skin, one making overalls out of pants, some revealing entirely different clothing. The young man from earlier was conspicuously absent from this section, but I did find him slowly removing clothing until he was in his underwear. That adjustment happened surreptitiously enough for me to wonder if he was ever actually a dancer or if he was simply giving in to the permission enabled by his ticket.

The dancers continue to improvise in their new outfits, eventually examining themselves in the full-length mirror. From this, another dance emerges between two dancers who are later joined by a third – enacting a duel between the infantile and the dominant. This continues playfully until the other dancers re-join the picture, bringing the piece to a conclusion by blocking the projectors one-by-one. All of this action is underscored by live electronic music by Nirvaan Ranganathan which fit perfectly.

The ticket, my first exposure to the piece’s intention, confused me. It directly told me I could take action, and I half-believed it. Almost ten minutes passed from the time I sat down until the piece officially started. During that time I wondered if I could interact with the dancers on the walls, or even if I was supposed to give my paper to one of them so they could take action and the piece would begin. The longer the piece went on, the more certain I became that I was actually not supposed to take action, that doing so would disturb the piece. Perhaps the ticket is the thesis of the piece – when performing roles, we can take action to shape and change these roles over time. That conclusion feels slightly forced to me, and I am left believing that the ticket introduced a tiny bit of unnecessary confusion/discomfort.

The projections were incredibly effective throughout. I felt simultaneously like a voyeur and on display the whole time, bringing incredible awareness to the fact that I, an audience member, was “performing” from the moment I stepped into the space. I am unsure what the addition of the iPhone projection offered, as it was not recorded and did not do anything the video projections were not already doing.

The Performers. Photo courtesy of FringeArts.

The Performers. Photo by Rhiannon Smith.

The titular “performers” refers not only to the context of artistic performance but also to life, how we contend with performing social roles every second of every day. The dancers made this aspect quite clear; their presence was absolutely necessary to the piece. However, I found the sections containing movement to be a big long and/or a bit repetitive, as once I uncovered the roles the dancers were playing my attention was once more drawn to the audience, who I often found more interesting than the movement of the dancers.

Embedded throughout the piece are nearly-hidden mini-performances which furthered the themes of the piece and were a delight to discover. From my vantage point I only discovered a woman, barely-visible, dancing behind the projection screen and the male dancer stripping to his underwear while remaining in his chair, but after the piece was over I also saw a female dancer with lipstick covering her face and another with red nail polish streaking up her arms. Normally I can sniff these audience plants from a mile away, but I was truly surprised to discover these performers – kudos are deserved for both timing and direction of focus.

The Performers succeeds at creating a surprising, sometimes uncomfortable, performance without an agenda that gives me room to contemplate its themes further. Easily the most interesting dance piece of the Fringe which I saw this year.

Running Time: 45 minutes, with no intermission.

The Performers played September 24, 2016 as part of the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival performing at University City Arts League in Philadelphia, PA. For more information on University City Arts League, go to their website.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS7.gif

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