If Cirque Mechanics’ Pedal Punk is indicative of what FirstWorks has in store for audiences with their 2016-17 Artistic Icons Series, then we should all be marking our calendars with indelible ink. Okay. So, paper calendars and ink are largely metaphoric, with the millennial wave washing clear the sands of time, and replacing the crude cave paintings Gen-Xers like me use to stay on schedule with phablets that beam information to a mysterious realm of data cryptically referred to as “the cloud.” Cirque Mechanic, as its name implies, provided an escape from the LED glow of virtual reality with an actual reality, fantastic, live spectacle of flesh and gears.
The circus is staged on and around what the company calls a Gantry Bike. Imagine a bridgelike structure, built of steel tubing and fitted with wheels towering above the stage at The Vets. Then trick it out as if Jules Verne invented a playground for superheroes. Bring on actual superheroes, deck them out in steampunk, fill the room with music, and tell them to have fun. That is the idea. Seriously, these performers were like superheroes. There was less of a story linking the acts together and more of a theme. Our hero is a young man working at a bicycle repair shop. The young man facilitates the transitions from one amazement to the next. As one may guess, cycles of the bi and uni varieties played integral roles as the props used in the acts. A pair of aerialists perform their tandem act, wrapping themselves around the front wheel of a penny-farthing hanging high above the stage. A rhythmic gymnast dances while hula-hooping and juggling half-a-dozen shiny rims, sans tubes and tires. A pair performs a flirtatious duo around a unicycle. The young man from the shop, himself, demonstrates mastery with a diabolo and later juggles while building himself higher and higher on a tower of balance boards. There is a contortionist, a pole-routine, a rope climbing routine, a trampoline act.
One of the best routines is a BMX bike “breakdance.” This makes sense, as the founder and creative director of Cirque Mechanics, Chris Lashua, spent most of his youth on a BMX bike, before being discovered by Cirque du Soleil. His connection with human-powered, simple engineering, absent of electricity or combustion and driven by the performers’ relationship with their bodies, their devices, and gravity, is beautifully transparent. None of the acts rely on illusion. The performance defies illusion and favors a more honest amazement found when the trick does not happen when you are looking elsewhere. Instead,the trick is there is no trick.
What is unfortunate is that Cirque Mechanics’ Pedal Punk was a one night engagement at The Vets. The good news, however, is that this was just the kickoff to FirstWorks’ Artistic Icon Series. If this was the first panel in the 2016-17 tapestry, the next two, scheduled for February and stitched together with interactive and locally spun threads, are bound to be fantastic. On February 3, 2017, the Paul Taylor Dance Company brings us a world premiere dance performance before it heads to New York City. Then, on February 24, 2017, Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris, arguably the world’s greatest hip-hop dancer and choreographer, brings us Puremovement. I will admit, my background in arts is lacking in the area of dance. My wife, Michele, however, has danced for pretty much her whole life. She studied dance, taught dance, choreographed dance, she currently teaches dance. And, while she patiently nods while I bore her to exasperation with my analysis of the socio-political meta-commentary on race versus class in the dramatic writing of Lillian Hellman, or lament on the miscategorization of Van Gogh as an impressionist when he is so clearly an expressionist, when it comes to dance, she is the expert and I am left with my mouth agape, grunting, “Oh, pretty!” Suffice it to say, Michele is impressed and excited by the artists lined up by FirstWorks.
That brings me to my next topic: How does FirstWorks make world class art happen in Rhode Island? “We like to see ourselves as a catalyst,” says Kathleen Pletcher, FirstWorks founder and executive artistic director. FirstWorks’ tagline reads Connecting art with audiences. “It’s not so much a matter of logistics as relationships. It takes a while to incubate.” Pletcher said that cultivating positive relationships with artists, venues, organizations, community leaders and audiences takes time. FirstWorks is in their 13th season. She described an entrepreneurial organization that currently has a feeling of momentum. “We started off with a partnership with the City of Providence. Now we partner with more than 90 organizations.”
FirstWorks continues to have a strong relationship with the City of Providence. Their collaboration with the City’s Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism and Mayor Elorza’s Office is the driving force behind PVDFest, the City’s four-day, downtown arts festival. And, while they still organize most events within Rhode Island’s capital, the company works with a network of regional partners. “We really like working across multiple disciplines and engaging the community,” said Pletcher, herself an artist with a background in classical piano and puppet theater. Given such a manifold artistic heritage combined with her belief in art as a means of social transformation, it is no wonder that FirstWorks envisioned such an exciting and ambitious, multi-month project around dance. And, within that spirit of community engagement and social transformation, FirstWorks is incorporating educational outreach whenever possible, offering a series of lectures, workshops, films and concerts with Paul Taylor as an artist “in-residence” as an opportunity for people to sample the art.
I must say, I found Pedal Punk to be marvelous. Indeed, any performance at or near that level of expertise and inspiration is worth attending and sharing with others. I want something like that to be based here in our neighborhood. I want that so much, in fact, that I asked Chris Lashua what conditions it would take to foster the development of such a project in a region already so fond of art and X-Games? “Space,” he told me. “You need a big space. A wealthy benefactor, maybe, who can provide a big open space.” Based out of Las Vegas, he said he grants access to his performers to come and go from his studio whenever they want. They can practice any time, day or night. If any wealthy benefactors are reading, or real estate developers, maybe consider fewer luxury loft “live/work” apartments, and just let circus performers move in. I’m not kidding.
Next, however, I look forward to having the legendary Paul Taylor in-residence. Taylor’s dance company’s performance should be experienced and I highly recommend doing so. The same goes for Rennie Harris’s Puremovement. In fact, look closely and often at whatever else FirstWorks is incubating for the future. I asked Kathleen Pletcher what it felt like to be an artist now in the role of an administrator, juggling so many big projects like these. She answered, “I don’t feel like an administrator. I feel like a curator. I have the fabulous privilege of being a part of the spark of creativity.” As long as seats are available, we all do.