Dance Review: We Sing the Body Eclectic by Shana Simmons Dance and I am Woman by Murphy/Smith Dance Collective

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The first ever Pittsburgh Fringe Festival took place over the weekend, with more than 20 performing arts shows in various venues around Shadyside. The now worldwide festival was modeled after the original, in Edinburgh, and supports up-and-coming artists in theater and dance, all of whom are “on the fringe” of the mainstream arts scene.

On Saturday night, back to back dance performances took place at the Winchester Thurston dance studio. Local companies, Shana Simmons Dance, and Murphy/Smith Dance Collective, shared short works with an intimate and engaged audience.

I am Woman was choreographed by Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, and originally premiered in December of 2012. The two were inspired by a heated election season and the women’s issues that were passionately debated. They decided to look at the history of women throughout the decades, creating an evening-length work with seven dancers.

For this festival, they showed excerpts of the piece, utilizing five dancers. In the first segment, the performers dressed in skirts, aprons, and pearls, while a voice over the speaker system gave instructions on how to be a good wife. “Be happy to see him!” we heard, in reference to the husband, after his work day. The dancers smiled cheekily and moved lightly on their toes through their supposedly joyful housewife duties.

Later, Jamie Murphy shed her dainty garments for a pair of simple striped pants. She moved in and out of the floor with ease, flexing her muscles as the sound morphed into a pastor and his male congregation complaining about women who do not dress feminine enough. Eventually, the other women entered the space wearing similarly tailored pants, and form-fitted blazers. They performed in unison over top of Hillary Clinton’s voice echoing sentiments for women’s equality.

Despite the topic having been explored quite a bit in the arts, I am Woman felt relevant. In fact, many of us could still use the history lesson. The Murphy/Smith Dance Collective took us back in time in a creative and interesting way.

In We Sing the Body Eclectic, Shana Simmons and the Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra (ELCO), explored ways in which we are affected by technology. The piece utilized four dancers and a large group of musicians. Similarly to I am Woman, the sound was equally intriguing as the movement.

To begin, ELCO used three different John Cage pieces, organized by artistic director, David Matthews. The second work was an original composition of “crackly” phone sounds by associate director, Alan Tormey. The final piece was called “Syndakit” by renowned performer and composer, Elliott Sharp.

In the first section, the dancers followed a digital clock, projected on the far wall, to guide the timing of their movement. The musicians watched closely and chose corresponding sounds, similar to how Cage worked with Merce Cunningham in early modern dance.

The dancing ranged from incredibly slow-motion walking, to intricate partnering. As the piece crescendoed, the performers used running transitions between big bursts of athletic movement, showing off their stamina and power.

Overall, the work cleverly portrayed the influence of technology on our minds and bodies. The concentrated but sometimes catatonic state of the dancers’ measured moments mirrored the lull of the laptop screen. And their frenetic, rapid quality was reminiscent of our need for instant gratification, a sad side effect of the tiny devices we call “smart” phones.

The festival’s simple goal of giving smaller, innovative artists performance opportunity made the weekend worthwhile. Hopefully the events will spark annual interest.


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