Biodance addresses a world on fire in collaborative Fringe performance 

click to enlarge Biodance's "Elemental Forces Redux" uses movement, music, and art to make a sobering statement about climate change.


Biodance's "Elemental Forces Redux" uses movement, music, and art to make a sobering statement about climate change.

One of the enchanted characters of the Rochester streets pedaled his bicycle up to the entrance of the Victorian Spiegeltent at E. Main and Gibbs streets and coasted to a stop. “I can’t figure out this place,” he said, shaking his head. “Exciting. Puzzling.”

By “this place,” he meant this city. Exciting, as in, cool things can happen. Puzzling, as in, will we even notice? And with that, the gates to the Rochester Fringe Festival’s Spiegelgarden swung open to a peal of thunder and dark skies. Opening night, and a dozen days of excitement and puzzlement ahead.

Thankfully, the film showing that night in the Spiegelgarden, “Singing in the Rain,” with Gene Kelly dancing up a storm, didn’t prove to be a forecast of things to come. Not on this night.

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Tuesday nights generally aren’t buzzing in downtown Rochester. And with a limited schedule, Rochester Fringe has used them in the past to ease into the fast lane. This event doesn’t really show its true face until the weekends draw near, and it truly takes on the look it has had in recent years, as one of the largest festivals of its kind in the country.

And this time, the 11th Rochester Fringe, there’s that added drama. Does the event — a gathering of actors, musicians, dancers, and drag queens — come back from the COVID concerns of the last two years?

Elemental, My Dear Biodance

There are so many disasters in the world today. Which way is a dancer to turn?

Missy Pfohl Smith has chosen the worldwide ecological meltdown.

Smith is the director and choreographer of Biodance, a Rochester avant-garde dance company, and a regular at Rochester Fringe. Dance is a big presence at the festival: Garth Fagan Dance, of course, but also PUSH Physical Theatre, as well as smaller companies.

And Tuesday’s “Elemental Forces Redux” once again brought together the creative trio of Smith, director and composer Dave Rivello and his Dave Rivello Ensemble, and digital artist W. Michelle Harris. The performance carried with it, as Smith told the audience at The Theatre at Innovation Square, a warning drawn from a climate-change poem written by Lauren K. Alleyne: these are Numbered Days.

The hour-long “Elemental Forces Redux” was presented in sections. “Wind,” “Water,” “Earth,” “Fire,” and “Air.” Natural imagery drawn from, as Smith noted, the indigenous people of this region.

The dozen players of Rivello’s black-clad ensemble were the executioners of the piece. Harris’s images, with a fusion of extreme colors and oddly filtered light, were the setting. And the images were the story as well, actually, as “Elemental Forces Redux” opened with place names scrolling up the screen behind the dancers. A roll call of places that have experienced ecological disasters.

The Biodance dancers joined “Wind” by slowly rolling from the stage eaves, as though they were being blown by the wind. They stood and were trees swaying in the wind. At times the videos — shot in Powder Mills Park with the same dancers — were reflections of the dancers onstage, with the projected images sometimes appearing on the live dancers themselves. Recorded movement and live movement merged as one.

They leaped, and leaped, and leaped, then collapsed onto the stage as in death, with the image of a soulless industrial plant looming over them on the video screen. More ecological facts were recited. Rivello’s ensemble chanted in wordless jazz lyricism. The world was being drowned, we were reminded, in noise pollution, air pollution. Even “the seawater changed color.”

And wildfires have rendered the air unbreathable, destroying towns. Ominous music and a backing video projection of a forest fire brought out Smith herself for “Fire,” twisting like a leaf caught in the updraft of the flames. Then she fell to the stage in a death agony, her hand on the floor, then pulling away, too hot to the touch.

Yet through the conflict, “Elemental Forces Redux” also showed dancers finding ways of working together. They wielded six-foot poles, then fused the poles and six dancers into one working organism.

Hope emerged, in the story of a 1,800-year-old olive tree in Italy, damaged in a fire, and the people of the community working together to save it. Dancers, now smiling, hoisted one of their group aloft, and then another, against a backdrop of a circle of light. The circle of life.

This was art and message as one. This was a true Fringe event addressing a world-encompassing disaster – climate change – that cannot be ignored.

“Biodance: Elemental Forces Redux” returns to the stage at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 at The Theater at Innovation Square.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].
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