The Santa Cruz Fringe Festival mixes misfit art and mass appeal
FuturPointe Dance’s husband-and-wife team of N’Jelle Gage and Guy Thorne love using food metaphors to describe their eclectic style.
“We found out cooking together that we work interestingly,” Gage says. “Very differently, but we know what we want the ends to look like. We bring the right combination of ingredients to the table.”
Fusing Caribbean, African, modern, and classical dance styles, the Rochester, New York-based duo’s troupe stirs in the contributions of multiple choreographers. “Myself and N’Jelle sculpt that within the accent,” says Thorne.
The accent he’s referring to is Jamaican. The pair attended performing arts school there together before parting ways to pursue their respective careers in the U.S. In 2009, they reunited in Rochester and founded FuturPointe. Their syncretic style runs not only through their pieces, but their identities as well.
“Jamaicans are a mix of Asian, African, Indian, native Amerindians,” says Thorne. “Caribbean people cook curry, fufu, fried rice, chop suey. We thought, ‘how can we make our art like that?’ We pull from a multitude of things and assimilate them in such a way that the accessibility to what we’re making has a farther reach.”
“We are children of the remix era,” explains Gage.
When FuturPointe Dance performs at the Santa Cruz Fringe Festival, which runs July 10-19, five dancers will give five perfor- mances of a “red, green and gold show.” Gage and Thorne were inspired by the signature colors of Rastafarian culture, which also appear on many African flags. “It’s a brand-new show, a world premiere, for Santa Cruz,” says Thorne. “It’s a set of pieces we’re putting together in a triptych. It’s mixology. Like ginger and sushi, when you put certain things together, one thing ele- vates the flavor of another.”
Though their style is experimental, FuturPointe actually seeks to reach a broad audience. “Artists should be able to pres- ent their work in a way that is palatable,” muses Thorne. “How can you create art that does that for people?”
Evolving the Edge
It’s a question that Santa Cruz Fringe Festival founder and director Dixie FunLee Mills is always asking. While there is plenty of innovative and experimental art and performance in the festival’s third year, she feels compelled to point out that not everything is—as the name implies—“weird and avant-garde.”
“There’s really something for everyone,” says Mills, who is also a dancer, resident choreographer at the 418 Project, and Pilates instructor. She points specifically to this year’s “Fringe famous” headliners, comedians Will Durst and Marga Gomez, as examples of the event’s broad appeal. “My vision is that every single person in Santa Cruz County will find something they want to see and will be glad they saw, whether you know someone performing, or know Tom Noddy as an icon, doing his bubble stuff on Johnny Carson back in the ’80s. Our hope is that something draws you in.”
When Mills is organizing each year’s festival, she spends time with each application, dividing the entries into three piles: “the ‘no way,’ the middle pile, and the ‘so amazing, must absolutely have,’” she says.
This year, FuturPointe fell into the latter.
“They’re super-eclectic,” she says, “both urban and technical. They’re friends with Cat Willis, who owns Tannery Dance Center—she’s housing them.”
Indeed, Gage and Thorne had been watching the Tannery develop from afar, and felt like “great stuff was happening,” says Gage. Veterans of Rochester Fringe, they jumped at the chance to participate in the festival here.
“We’ve never been to Santa Cruz, and we were like, ‘perfect!’” says Gage.
Defined by the U.S. Association of Fringe Festivals as “a performing-arts smorgasbord,” Fringe began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947, with the name a reference to the fact that the first festival was “round the fringe” of the Edinburgh International Festival. They’re now held around the world, with nearly 200 festivals sharing a focus on performance, ease of participation, and original material presented in a rapid-fire style across multiple venues and dates.
Mills herself is a longtime Fringe vet, having participated in festivals from Scotland to Minnesota. As Dixie FunLee Shulman, she founded the Dixie Fun Dance Theatre in New York in 2000, and took her one-woman show “The Thinnest Woman Wins” to Europe. After moving to Santa Cruz in 2010, she took the “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” slogan to heart, believing the local arts scene was lively enough to support a Fringe of its own.
She presented the idea to Chip from the Downtown Association, who advised her on getting it started. “I met the right people who were willing to help and guide me, and got a great board of directors,” Mills says. Three years ago, Santa Cruz followed Hollywood, San Diego, and San Francisco as California’s fourth Fringe host city.
“It’s gone from brand new, to ‘OK, we’re doing it again,’ to a number of groups doing Fringe for the second and third time,” she says. “Some locals figured out it’s an affordable way to create and perform a new show every year when you do it through Fringe. It’s fun to be a part of it, and artists get to see all the other Fringe shows for free, so it’s inspiring as an artist.”
With 32 shows spread over 10 days and six venues, the Santa Cruz Fringe Festival is an organizational challenge manned mostly by volunteers. This year’s festival adds the reopened Veterans Memorial Building as a new sponsor venue, joining the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center, the 418 Project, and Center Stage. The “Fringe Blast-off” event on Thursday, July 10 kicks things off, with 30-minute events at each of the venues for the price of a $2 button.
The buttons are another new addition this year. When Mills got together with Fringe Fest directors and staff from across the country after last year’s event, she discovered that “only two of us weren’t doing buttons. You gotta do buttons!”
In addition to supporting the festival, button-holders are admitted to after-parties and lunchtime artist talks at the Art Bar & Café, another Fringe addition at Tannery Arts Center which Mills dubs “the after-hours hangout” (the venue’s liquor license was recently extended to midnight). The idea is for audience members to wear the buttons throughout the event to create a feeling of community and camaraderie amongst attendees.
“People see the button and talk to each other,” says Mills. “Word gets out about the really good shows.”
Besides the sponsorship venues, this year introduces the “BYOV”— Bring Your Own Venue—locales of Aerial Arts Santa Cruz and the Tannery Arts Center Community Room (Building 1030), along with the Art Bar.
“If you’re BYOV, you can just do it,” Mills explains. “If you have a venue, you’re in. Venues can be unex- pected. Fringe shows have happened in a laundromat, a public bathroom, a 12-story staircase.”
Exempt from the curatorial process, BYOVs render Fringe even more inclusive, providing new performance opportunities for local artists. Amber Campion, yoga teacher at Divinitree and creator of her own fusion practice, “Yogaeira,” has been rehearsing for the show “CounterCulture” with Jeanette Bent. Campion recalls seeing a Fringe Festival show in New York in her mid-twenties.
“I thought, ‘This is amazing! This is the kind of event I want to perform in one day,” she says. “Now, a decade later, I’m performing as an aerialist in this piece. Fringe Fest Santa Cruz is helping me actualize a longtime dream.” Liza Monroy
Ten acts that caught our eye
The Santa Cruz Fringe Festival offers one week out of the year to delight in the weirdest of the weird, the moderately weird, and the just-barely, maybe-only-a-little weird. It’s “fringe,” after all, and this year’s lineup of dance, comedy, performance art and theater offers a spectrum of talented artists doing just about every fringy thing you can think of. GT picked 10 performances that piqued our interest and sat down with festival founder Dixie Mills to get a feel for this year’s highlights.
Flex Dance company: Flexual Healing
With all the fierce power and surpris- ing strength of hardened athletes, this group defies the myth that dance is not a sport—yet maintains the mystical grace that makes the whole thing look so damn easy. This year, Leslie Johnson’s band of 12 come to Fringe with their “FLEXual Healing” show—burlesque and totally badass. It’s not a typical burlesque show, where a girl gets on stage and ends up missing most of her costume by the end of the song, says Mills. It’s still contemporary dance with a saucy side. “Last year, people were on their feet screaming,” she says. July 11-15 at the Veterans Memorial Building
Ouroboros Shadow Pictures: Vasilisa
Why did shadow theater ever go out of style? Ouroboros breathes life into the paper cut-outs and shapes—made utterly bizarre and fascinating by the nimble fingers of Alisa Javits,who constructs the paper sets—and adds the musical prowess of Adam Lipsky. Their tales of shadowy intrigue are strongly reminiscent of Weimar-era German film (think Nosferatu mixed with an almost Katerina Lanfranco style of paper cutting), and collaborate with local dancers and artists. July 12, 13, 16, 19 at the Veterans Memorial Building
Will Durst: Boomeraging
“To me he’s sort of like a George Carlin,” says Mills of Emmy-nom- inated political satirist Will Durst. “This is going to take us on some journey of his life, it’ll be fun.” In “BoomerAging,” Durst bemoans the trials of age, with lamentations on lapses in techie know-how and “what happens when acid flashbacks meet dementia.” It’s a show for the Boom- ers in the audience—children under the age of 40 will not be admitted without guardian supervision—but Durst has a way of making everyone giggle like a little kid. July 12, 13, 16, 18, 19 at the Veterans Memorial Building
Tom Noddy: Bubble Magic
Tom Noddy’s magnificent bub- ble-blowing magic is a whole lot more than hot air. “Whether you’re eight months old or 108 years old, it doesn't matter,” says Mills. “Everybody loves it.” Bubbles inside of bubbles, smoke inside of bubbles, unimaginable shapes of bubbles—the artistry and science behind this show is awesomely mind-blowing. July 17-19 at the Veterans Memorial Building
Anna and the Annadroids: Man(u)fractured
The surrealist, Betty Boop-esque robotic dance crew Anna and the Annadroids are far from ballerinas in tutus floating feather-like across a stage. They are political and artsy in a way that’s a little nuts, as they tie together a bold use of lights and projections for one full-bodied audience experience. Beyond the pirouettes and jeté leaps, with mimeish makeup and crazy props, these dancers use their bodies in ways of superbly weird spectacle and fantastic visual creativity. July 11-13 at The 418 Project
Mindy Dillard: How to Survive a Poison Apple
Talking about eating disorders is never easy. Somehow, though, Mindy Dillard pulls it off in what is perhaps one of the most “fringe” of all pieces in this year’s festival, precisely because it deals with issues that are usually swept under the rug. The singer/songwriter fashions wit and emotion into the biting “How to Survive a Poison Apple,” with a portion of her show’s proceeds going to the local Lotus Collaborative, an eating disorder treatment center. A survivor herself, Mindy Dillard manages to shape the conversation about society’s ridiculous expecta- tions, self-esteem, body dysmorphia and dating into a non-linear tale that is both stirring and playful. July 17-19 at the 418 Project
Crocker Creations: 3 Short Plays on Love
What’s love got to do with it? Every- thing, duh. Andrew Crocker’s trifold production suggests love is rarely patient or kind—in fact, it’s most often frustrating and painful. “3 Short Plays on Love” focus on an unhappy couple at the end of a long marriage, a suicidal man who finds new meaning in life due to an unrequited love for a ninja assassin, and the intricate messiness of a polyamorous rela- tionship. Judging by his other works, “Sweat” and “Stop the Bleeding” (worth a look on YouTube), these three plays will be filled with utter realness and deliciously dark humor. July 11, 12, 13, 16, 19 at Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center
Marga Gomez: Lovebirds
Written and acted by Gomez, “Love- Birds” is a story about incurable romantics—Orestes the macho maître d’; his love interest, the married singer; and the nightclub photographer who catches the secret affair on film. “LoveBirds” is all Gomez, all the time, witty and genuine. Mills describes Gomez as an icon in the off-Broadway theater world; “She’s kind of the queen of the solo performance,” says Mills, adding that the award-winning performer’s act will likely sell out quickly. July 12, 13, 16, 17, 19 at Center Stage
Humbug outfit: Kachuzzi Presentare!
Hey, women can clown around, too. And they can clown about gender roles, and make it an interactive show. At least, Humbug Outfit can, and we should probably leave it to them to do so. An especially creative way to critique the status quo, Tara Mariquita Makua and Enda O. Breadon come all the way from Honolulu to play Kachuzzi the clown and her assistant, the Sexy Foil, and poke fun at social expectations. If anything, Fringe always needs a clown; “We didn't have any circus things this year, so she’s the closest thing,” says Mills. “I’m like ‘good, we have a clown.’” July 11-15 at the 418 Project
Fero Kiraly and Zuzana Zabkova: To (Be) Follow(ed)
The work of Slovak artists Zuzana Zabkova and Fero Kiraly explores the relationship between leader and follower. Beyond that, we haven’t got an inkling of what’s going on here. Certainly this is our most out-there pick—based on the one-minute YouTube clip, “To (Be ) Follow(ed)” looks like one of those performances where the immediate reaction might be to cover your ears and reach palm to face—but seriously, what’s a Fringe Festival without fringe? The duo uses open source software to track their movements, and creates a real-time composition which sounds pretty neat. Mills says she doesn’t really know what to expect either, but there will definitely be music involved. Whether it’s cringe-worthy or Fringe-worthy has yet to be determined. July 12, 14, 17, 19 at the 418 Project. Anne-Marie Harrison
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