Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Tara Keating and Matthew Prescott in “Proliferation of the Imagination”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Two Innovative Premieres at PIFA

Dance innovations dominated the Paris scene circa 1920, and that is the theme of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts this month. Philly choreographer Rennie Harris has weighed in with “Heaven,” his version of that riot-inducing work “Le sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”) by Igor Stravinsky. The music and Nijinsky’s choreographic paganism (which depicts a virginal sacrifice) had Parisian audiences in the aisles. Harris’s update switches the gender of the sacrifice but, like the original, keeps the sexes segregated. The sexual subtext is overt, but otherwise his narrative is free-form.

The prologue (to Led Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven”) has the priestess and her disciples moving ritualistically on a smoke-filled stage in ethereal formations. The trio of men in red harem pants move in and around them in fevered formations. “Heaven” seems like a middle-draft and will eventually have a tighter narrative, but this pulses with theatricality and arresting stage pictures. But the “Sacre” in this “Heaven” is Harris’s expected break, pop-and-lock, hip-hop vocabulary, building the narrative, however cryptic. The men just continue to dazzle with high-velocity acrobatics with extreme dance difficulty—head pirouettes, punch-front vaults, and low-ground layouts that keep evolving into body contortions. Harris continues to define this genre.

Choreographer Matthew Neenan has never been more over the top or inventive than with his PIFA premiere of Ballet X’s “Proliferation of the Imagination,” an adaptation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Les mamelles de Tirésias” (“The Breasts of Tiresias“). This is definitely a festival’s surreal highlight that mixes dance, music and camp theater. (See video clip below.) No one can put a pointe shoe in a dance cheek firmer than Neenan, but here it’s just all out dance comedy.

Apollinaire’s story is of a baker’s wife who turns into a man and the baker who turns into a woman, but wait… they already have shadows in drag (Tara Keating and Matthew Prescott, both wonderfully animated) dancing their alter-sex egos. Colby Damon is the reporter son who wears an atlas diaper, smokes a guitar and can rap (along with tossing off hip-hop skips and crisp entrechats). Gabrielle Lamb is the policeman, very Pink Panther-y in black pointe shoes, who seduces the husband, now a woman pumping out babies for cash, when he is not sashaying beautifully in CFM pumps.

Walter Bilderback, the stage director, makes this controlled mayhem a surrealistic soufflé. Neenan pumps the dances with broad character humor, laced with wicked dance wit. I loved the sparring duets between Anitra N. Keegan and Jaime Lennon (they had one pointe shoe on and one bare foot). It all ends up somehow in a dessert conga line. The joyous musical accompaniment was performed by deft and droll accordianist-painist-composer Rosie Langabeer, with Josh Machiz on a Paris-at-midnight double bass and Jesse Sparhawk’s shadowy harp and guitar.

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