Leah Stein, Dance Alchemist

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July 8, 2015, Miriam Seidel

Leah Stein, a master of site-specific choreography, is known for creating outdoor dances that work a kind of alchemy on the places where they happen. She proceeds inclusively, allowing her dancers, the audience, the place itself, and random elements including passersby and even the weather, to come together into a new kind of communal zone.

In TURBINE, the collaborative piece created with the Mendelssohn Club to mark the 200thanniversary of Philadelphia’s historic Fairmount Water Work’s complex, we in the audience followed the fifteen dancers and several dozen singers as they moved through the outdoor site, and sometimes surrounded us. Immersion was a fitting strategy for this place, once an early-industrial marvel that supplied clean water to the city, and now an eerily beautiful collection of open Greek-Revival structures, cliffs, trees and lawn set between the Philadelphia Museum and the Schuylkill River.

Beginning in a grove of trLSDC1 smees, the dancers and singers appeared without fanfare among the audience, offering simple arcing gestures and short, overlapping musical phrases. We followed them as they moved across the grass, entered a riverside gazebo, and then made their way along a short palisade to a wide plaza. The dancers, in bright orange, and the singers in blue-green vests or scarves, seemed to be making a new map of the place while moving across the surface it described.

Writers including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain visited the renowned Water Works in their time, and composer Byron Au Yong culled haiku-like fragments from their descriptions to create flexible sonic modules. Au Yong, who has made site-based work before, allowed the singers some liberty in the timing of their own phrases, which interwove, sometimes fading in the air, sometimes resonating like depth charges. For the choir members of the Mendelssohn Club, who have worked with Stein before, the piece offered a uniquely challenging adventure, and we felt their bravery as they balanced walking and expressive gestures with outdoor singing. Meanwhile, the dancers held the space like sentries—moving, or often still; offered rituals of pouring water; and danced, all with never-flagging concentration.

Dancers and singers on the plaza

As we attended to what was happening, the site came to life around the performers. Standing in the early evening light, I was struck by the uncommon gracefulness of this place, and simultaneously felt it as it is right now: a place ringed by parked cars and traffic noise, part of a living city.

Experiencing a work by Leah Stein, I’ve found, has aftereffects. Some good art does this—by destabilizing our perception, it makes us see differently. It may be partly the shock of displacement into an unexpected venue that intensifies our attention, pushing us into the present moment (like coming on a flash-mob performance, which may be a new folk form of site-specific dance). But her outdoor events, although large-scale, are anti-spectacles, inducing a sense of wonder through an almost hypnotic sense of heightened receptivity. After the last mingling of performers and audience on the plaza, we left transformed, released into the surroundings and suddenly seeing the colors of dusk as more saturated, the sounds more crisp, and every movement as a signal.

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