Movement Brigade’s ‘Constants’ BY: Jonathan M. Stein 08.27.2011 In this nighttime theatrical adventure, Alie Vidich’s Movement Brigade harnesses the Schuylkill River nightscape to connect Philadelphians to a lost history of our surroundings. Constants. Performed by Movement Brigade. Through September 4, 2011, starting on Schuylkill River Trail off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, West Fairmount Park. (267) 467-0657 or www.movementbrigade.org. The Schuylkill, as runaway slaves might have seen it. (Photo: Angie Youkyung Chung.)
A river into our past JONATHAN M. STEIN Alie Vidich’s Movement Brigade harnesses the transforming power of the Schuylkill River nightscape to connect Philadelphians to a lost history of our surroundings. Come prepared for both a nighttime adventure and a site-specific theatrical experience in which we glide upon a river into our past. Our audience journey begins, led by a black costumed crow figure (Elise Moureau, singer and song-writer) who narrates and later sings a tale derived from the Lenape Nation’s story of Four Crows. (The Lenape conceived of history as flights of four crows across time.) Our narrow path weaves through the dark, dense riverbank growth that quickly becomes a forest, far removed from our city, in which animal skin-clad performers spring up, spy us, and slip away into the night. As we hear the crow’s entreaties to “fly with” her, the Dutch-named “hidden river” is revealed at an opening on the embankment. We enter three canoes and join the silent, smooth nighttime waters of the Schuylkill that few among us (including those muscled, daytime scullers) ever experience. Ghosts on the riverbank As our performer guides direct our canoes through the river upstream to a background chorus of hypnotic cicada song, we encounter bankside dramatic sketches of people and events over the past 300 years. These episodes stand out more for their imagistic allure than for their theater or movement content. We flow into memories— of two ghostly women recounting typhoid fever deaths from polluted river water in 1906. Farther upstream, further into the past, we first hear the suicidal wishes of a slave in the 1850s and then come upon an island in the river where an escaped slave along the Underground Railroad finds nighttime security but also loneliness and conflicted anguish, having left her infant behind in Maryland. She awaits her next segment: a
midnight liaison at the Belmont Mansion, which she nods at, on the nearby hill across the river. We experience the entire surroundings in altered ways, even those that we know rest with our contemporary urban lives. Distant car lights and sounds become other nocturnal spirits, and the lights and images of river edge lampposts, mirrored in the river, become one with the natural environment. Song of the shad An ode to the Schuylkill’s tough, migrating shadfish is sung by our paddling guides, and we’re soon struck by a large floating, silver glistening shad, slowly moving upstream after, we presume, it had steadfastly made the journey from saltier waters downstream. (We’re ready to believe the supernatural, even if we also know that a fish-friendly ladder at the Fairmount Dam has recently restored the shad to the Schuylkill after a century’s man-enforced exile). This sculptural, lighted creation of Naomi Littell, with small propelling oars where pectoral fins might emerge, is the performance’s whimsical delight. In addition to Vidich and Moureau, cast members Clarissa Brodkin, Christina May, Marc Miller, Katherine Schellman and Amber Williams ably bring together the tightly timed elements of a performance on a natural moving stage. Even if their text and movement could be more attuned to the mysteries of the piece, the work nevertheless artfully unlocks this “hidden river’s” past.