Philadelphia Live Arts Festival
The Pool at the Gershman Y
401 South Broad Street
It is hard not to have preconceived notions when you are about to experience art. Whether it’s reading a book, going to the theatre, going to see a ballet, seeing an art exhibit, watching a film, et al, you already know what the work is going to be about, who is involved, what their previous experience is, and what people think about it. You have all this knowledge and information without having yet experienced it.
The house manager announced “Forget everything that you have seen and read about Urban Scuba. Until you’ve seen the show, you have not experienced Urban Scuba.” Profound in its frankness, it was true and pithy. We were definitely in for an experience.
I was already excited about the show but nervous as well. Nervous mostly because as an artist and specifically, a choreographer, it is hard to sit and watch a show without thinking about who’s not spotting their turns, when are the dancers not synchronized, why is the lighting scheme this or that way, who has the best extension, and most importantly, how would I have made this better.
I was already familiar with the work of John Luna, one of the dancers in the piece. Well known in the Philadelphia dance community, Luna is most famous for his daring acrobatic style that is buoyant, uncanny and incredible. He is like a rambunctious dance monkey that can defy gravity. All of what I have seen him in has been his dance work in pieces by Molly Root and Kate Watson-Wallace. I had the amazing opportunity to partner with Luna during an audition for Watson-Wallace and he was a dancer’s dancer. He brought this wonderful aura to the movement combination that elicited this amorphous engagement out of me that brought out this wonderful comfort and understanding of the choreography; like a runner’s high, but with dance. Naturally, as a dance maker, I wanted to use him on my canvas. I thought of all types of ways to contort his body and for ways to bring his style into my own motifs, but alas, he is another muse not yet to be exploited by my ideas.
Indeed Urban Scuba was heavily influenced by the dancer’s high, that rush that comes when you reach that balletic nirvana, that supreme transcendence from body to pure rhythm. Full of spectacle and daring, it entertained, excited and enlightened.
Of most import was that the dance took place in an abandoned, Olympic sized pool at the Gershman Y on the Avenue of the Arts. The Philadelphia Live Arts and Fringe Festival are known for the site-specific works of their presenters, and at times it can get a little gimmicky. But here, Urban Scuba takes place in a space that is the perfect stage for the convocation of satire in which the space allows.
I was anxiously awaiting to see what all the talk was about. Even after the house manager’s precursory advisory, I was still stuck in my head wondering what it was that I was going to see that I’ve already heard about. The cramped space was full to capacity, the seats on risers in the shallow end of the pool. I sat on the outskirts of the pool, near the lip of one of the edges where you would normally dip your feet in to test the water. The latter half of the pool where the deep end was was home to the performance space itself. There were huge pieces of plastic hanging from rafters on the ceiling, trailing all the way down to the pool floor. Behind the plastic you could see some floating water touching the bottom of the scrim like plastic curtains. The site felt comfortable and lent itself to being a viable performance spot. It felt like art.
After too long, the show was about to begin. The music (that sadly went uncredited on the program) shouted out of the speakers in a gothic, techno, new-wave style, sounding like adrenaline personified. Big splashy puddles of water were strewn against the plastic, hinting at a madness behind the plastic scrim that might have soon been unveiled. The introduction went on long enough to build a superfluous amount of tension, and eventually, we were bombarded by flying bodies, flipping and gliding in the air attached to studebaker harnesses and high wires.
After a few moments I tried my best not to be jaded, but it was difficult because there was not only a build up of all the information I had already acquired about the piece, but there was such a build up in the room of anticipation, and for some reason, the beginning took too damn long. Could too much publicity make bad publicity exist? I wondered.
Soon, we were treated to the end of the introduction and the botched but brilliant high wire act subsided. The next few pieces started to meld together the inherent drama in the piece. There was an undercurrent of searching and longing that was explained through the dancer’s adroit mastering of the concept and the space of the dance work.
The mystical music along with the surreal movements painted an abstract picture of a creation that was part lively with humor and part dead serious. Stunt after stunt, we were led into this dream-like circus, all accompanied by a moody soundtrack of computer generated noise and heart wrenching musical instruments. A banshee-like dancer appeared, greeting us with a much needed softness and vulnerability, and she became the reality that made everything less real.
One of the most intriguing scenes that made up this impressive ballet was a duet of two male dancers who utilized a double-headed unicycle (no better way to describe it) that was hung and floating above the water. Their movements were impeccably composed and exciting to watch, as they scrambled their way to the center while the big rod swung around and around, while they pantomimed bicycle movements and the whole picture was seemingly a portrait of the vicious cycles we all go through while trying to maintain our balance.
I tried to relax and to take the whole thing in. To not read into the concept and just enjoy what I was seeing. It became easier and easier as the ballet progressed.
It wasn’t until half-way through the show that I realized that I was in fact watching a ballet. To me it seemed like the piece was slightly under-rehearsed only because the choreography involved so much difficulty that it would have been less exhausting for the dancers had the compositions been spread out amongst more bodies. It was quite a feat for them to achieve such strenuous bouts of dance not to mention the costume changes, being half naked and immersed in water throughout most of the show and so on. I felt guilty when I noticed a slip or an arm that wasn’t right, but that is my eye, and in a way, I am selfishly looking for flaws due to my insecurity in my own work.
Urban Scuba as a whole reminded me of youth. It was very nostalgic for me. It seems as though Brian Sanders found the perfect playground with which to try out all of his stunts. While there was nothing intellectually sophomoric about the piece, it was light and heavy all at once, while it didn’t take itself too seriously. There was no definitive story that screamed for the audience’s understanding, instead, it pointed a mirror at us and made us laugh at ourselves.
I can’t go on without mentioning the sultriness of the piece. The dancers were scantily clad in very nude colored clothing for much of their wet soaked performance. It was an inciting aspect that wasn’t too distracting yet it lent itself to stripping down the dancers to a divine anonymity that exemplified the universal characters they were playing. They were all slaves to their environment that bordered between zen and hell.
The pool was the perfect place for this wavy, funny nightmare. The characters were made to dance like fish out of water and to look like nymphs and playful children and brave soldiers and scared ingenues. These are the fish in the sea. It is all of us.
By the end I thought, how nice, a gimmick that isn’t a contrivance. I understood even though quite frankly I’m sick of the high wire act, I’ve seen it way too many times. Sure, it is nice to take dance to the next level, off the ground, but I was much more entertained, intrigued and impressed with the work that he did with the water. He choreographed liquid and he made the most of the space. I am quite inspired by the audacity of the piece and the danger, but I wonder if it was at all necessary. While Sanders didn’t get stuck in the undertow of creativity, he managed to zealously expose his talents.
Part of me loves that he went there and regressed back to that little kid in the playground trying to see what his body can do off the monkey bars or up in the tree. Then the other me was dying for a little bit more dance, and a lot less spectacle. But isn’t that what the playground is all about?