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Rochester's Fringe Festival: It's a wrap

Sep 23, 2018

Here’s what large-scale public events such as the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival tell us: The streets are not simply for cars.

Karnowsky Estime of Rochester's Plus Ultra team competing in the Fringe Street Beat.
Credit Jeff Spevak

The 11-day fest is what it can look like when a city is exploited for its full potential. Venues playing host to the arts, both mind-blowing and works in progress, showcasing the full range of humanity. As it was with Fringe Street Beat on Saturday afternoon, the final day of Rochester Fringe. Urban dance teams on the closed-off Gibbs Street, in the shadow of Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, the home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

A 100 percent multi-racial meeting of the feet, young people bringing their excess energy to the street, in search of an outlet. Eight three-man crews from seven cities chasing the $1,500 prize into the final rounds: Toronto, Binghamton, Ithaca, Syracuse, Buffalo, a conglomerate from Elmira and Harrisburg, Pa., and two from Rochester.

Street dancing still offers the signature spinning-on-the-head and robotic moves dating back to the early days of breakdancing. Strutting and smoothness is a premium in this loose, twisting limbo. Mimes seem to have moved into the neighborhood, and comedy works: teams getting in each others’ faces, playing at trash talk. Binghamton brought on some hat juggling.

Two teams faced off against each other in the semifinal rounds, each member of the three-man teams taking a 60-second solo, with the winning squad as voted on by a trio of New York City dance judges advancing to the next round.

Street spirituality blossomed during a break before the finals, with some of the dance teams crowding around the temporary dance floor, sharing secrets of the moves. Then on to the finals. For those of you keeping an office Street Beat bracket, Toronto’s Battle Mons won the judges’ nod over Binghamton’s 7 Sessions.

Percussion: The art of hitting things

This was music for mature audiences, only. The Eastman Percussion Ensemble, 17 Eastman School of Music students, laid a serious beatdown on inanimate objects in Sproull Atrium, at Max of Eastman Place.

Eastman Percussion Ensemble performing Steve Reich's "Drumming" in Sproull Atrium at Max at Eastman Place.
Credit Jeff Spevak

Percussion ensembles are a relatively new concept, Eastman School of Music Professor of Percussion Michael Burritt explained during a pre-concert talk for a group of University of Rochester high muckety-mucks (They didn’t notice the writer sitting at the bar). Originating in the late 1920s, percussion ensembles are chamber music for percussionists. And one of the significant pieces from the 20th century for percussion, Burritt said, is Steve Reich’s “Drumming,” written in 1971, before he became one of the biggest names in minimalist composing. After a trip to Ghana, Reich worked out “Drumming” in collaboration with a handful of percussionists that included Russell Hartenberger, professor emeritus and former dean of the faculty at the University of Toronto who also played with a top percussion group, Nexus, and who was on hand for this show.

“Drumming” is an hour-long piece that The Eastman Percussion Ensemble learned in three days by ear.

Three days. By ear.

It opened with two drummers using sticks to play tuned bongo drums mounted on stands. Soon it was four drummers, building a complex, rolling, precise, rhythmic tension. The musicians meandered on and off the stage throughout the hour-long piece, like factory workers at shift change. The machine does not stop. It is composition through addition and subtraction. Marimbas, piccolo, the bell tones of glockenspiel, women’s voices mimicking the instruments, and whistling, even. Layers upon layers of sound, an assembly line of door chimes, recurring patterns and aural hallucinations, until shifts from “klunk” to “ker-klunk” seemed dynamic, indeed.

Then boom, the machine was switched off. And out into the street the crowd went, where rock bands play and people in the Spiegelgarden warm their hands on propane-fueled flames. A crisp, first night of autumn.

What we learned

After 11 days of Rochester Fringe, the way to make the language of Shakespeare accessible to modern audience is to scatter contemporary curse words throughout. I learned this from Shotspeare, the drinking game in the Speigeltent that was the Romeo and Juliet I wish I’d studied in college.     

Jeff Spevak is a cultural arts contributor to WXXI. The Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.