Arts & Ideas Diary, Day 12 & 13: The Closing Weekend

Several of the Arts & Ideas offerings this year had relatively long runs for such a festival: Seven separate days of performances for Freewheelers, eight days for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Quiet Volume, nine for Stuck Elevator, and a full-festival 13 days for L’homme Cirque.

Such leisurely stays could potentially make the second week of the festival a slow-down time, when folks are just catching up on things that are already happening, with a lack of fresh excitement. That’s not what happened here. There were still debuts and surprises to be had up into the final days. Shantala Shivalingappa’s one-woman Indian dance show Akasha opened on Wednesday, June 26, followed by Les 7 Doigts de la main’s Sequence 8 show on June 27, with one-nighters like the punchy trad Italian folk band Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino on Tuesday, Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir and the free fest-concluding double-bill of Debo Band and Fendiko on the Green bandstand. 

This was my Saturday:

At 2 p.m. I saw the Sequence 8 show, where a troupe of young acrobats (guided by director/choreographers from the umbrella organization of Canadian circus-theater conceptualists Les 7 Doigts de la main) flipped and flew and strutted and fretted through a show where acrobats were presented as relationship metaphors. The stunts were astounding, even more so than many other indoor circus revues I’ve seen. Do you know how, when you see somebody do a backflip or a trapeze trick and you think “Well, there probably was a time when my body could have done such a thing, if I’d chosen to work harder enough at it”?  Well, there were moments in Sequence 8 where I thought “Surely no body is able to do what I just saw that body do.” Running up a not-very-thick pole, parkour-style. High-in-the-air flips and landings, using a flexible balance beam as a base. Using colleagues hands as landing spots for multiple jumps and flips. Balancing seemingly on anything.

The sketches in between the circus tricks were pretty funny too, starting with the very first one in which a guy stuck with delivering the “silence your phones” speech who turned it into a rumination on presentation in general. Or the two men who, after accomplishing an amazing trapeze act, began arguing about whether it signified “cause and effect between two individuals” or a series of “references to nature.” There was an intentionally lame New Haven rap worked up for the local crowd, where the name of our fair city was made to rhyme with “home of the American-style pizza I’ve been cravin’,” and continued with “where all the U.S. Presidents went, probably.”

Some theater/circus shows, even the ones Arts & Ideas has brought in, fly right out of my head as soon as I’ve seen them. Sequence was rich and full and deep and spectacular, and I’ll remember it for a long time.

At 8 p.m. I saw the final performance of A Broken Umbrella Theater’s original music/theater work Freewheelers, which was developed with festival support. As usual with ABUT pieces, it had strong local historical underpinnings. Freewheelers was set in the 1860s, and found irony in the fact that, just as newfangled bicycles were gaining momentum as an exercise tool and as efficient transportation, one of the top industries in town was the manufacturing of corsets, which restricted women’s movements and added to the patriarchic nonsense which was already restricted their ability to ride bikes because it wasn’t ladylike.

This was the fourth A Broken Umbrella production I’d seen, and was probably their weakest, so it’s a shame that this was the one which has been seen by the largest audiences. Rather than use actual figures from history, the company used some character names which evoked New Haven history (a factory owner named Isaac, presumably after Strouse-Adler owner Isaac Ullman) and the history of women’s civil rights in general (a young girl named Amelia, reminiscent of New York/Midwestern suffragette Amelia Bloomer, who doffed her corset and wore leggings instead in the 1850s).

I admire how ABUT does shows the way they want to do them, not worrying about things like length (their productions often clock in at under an hour) or economy of scale. With a devoted community base of actors to draw from, when they need a crowd they go and get one, so while Freewheelers essentially was a three-character play, it had a cast of nine and a four-piece band.

That band was overused, with local singer-songwriter Chrissy Gardner doing piano pop songs that vaguely fit the themes of the script but were more of a distraction than an augmentation. It doesn’t help that, while vagueness and generalities were a huge part of the supporting dance and music elements of the show, the play’s script was crying out for a third act rather than the abrupt and simplistic ending it got.

I’m used to more balanced and focused efforts from A Broken Umbrella, and ones where the fantasy elements take off from historic facts and not pat melodramas. The troupe still has plenty going for it, especially that diehard sense of community that imbues every one of their projects. But this one contained far more style than substance, and wasn’t up to the company’s best work.

Following Freewheelers, it was a pleasure to find the Debo Band, a Ethiopian-styled pop band based in Boston, still playing on New Haven Green. They kicked like a world-music R&B band, with a frenzied horn section and multi-layered rhythms. I’d heard a few songs from the other Green act that night, Fendika, who actually come from Ethiopia and did a more traditional set loaded with dance and unusual instrumentation. Debo Band and Fendika united for a big finale, which was made even grander when festival director Mary Lou Aleskie asked all available Arts & Ideas staffers and volunteers to gather onstage. It was a stage-filling spectacle to be sure, for the final moments of A&I 2013.

This year's festival held together better than many of the A&Is before it. It appeared to create great enthusiasm in the city—not just as something to do, but as a real gathering point. Two weeks may be too short. There are going to be a lot of people this week wondering what they're going to do with themselves now that Arts & Ideas is over.