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Fringe Festival Day 9: Garth Fagan Dance & The North Star

Fred SanFilipo
for WXXI News

It took 4½ decades for Garth Fagan Dance to get around to writing a piece about Frederick Douglass. But the wait is nearly over.

The nationally recognized Rochester contemporary dance ensemble is airing a few sections of the new work on the iconic Rochester abolitionist at this year’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. Along with right-hand man Norwood Pennewell’s new work in progress, “Distant Kin,” it’s clear that Garth Fagan Dance is not leaping on its laurels. 

Rochester’s powerful and diverse dance scene – Garth Fagan, PUSH Physical Theater and Biodance, just for starters – is a major piece of the Rochester Fringe. Groups that year after year have something to say. As principal dancer Natalie Rogers noted early on in Thursday’s informal Rochester Fringe exhibition, it’s a work ethic that Fagan says his father instilled in him: “Do your best. Keep working hard.”

And so Garth Fagan Dance is working to complete “The North Star” in time for a world premiere at the end of October at New York City’s Joyce Theater. It takes two men to dance in Douglass’ shoes: Pennewell is the mature Douglass, Vitolio Jeune the younger Douglass. “We don’t have comrades among our men,” Fagan said before the start of the dance, and “The North Star” steps into that idea of community. Fagan’s brilliant idea is to put the two Douglasses onstage together at one point. So we see the younger Douglass sprinting around the stage, trapped, before his escape and freedom. The older Douglass joins him, wrapping a comforting arm around the shoulders of the younger Douglass, his fists still clenched in anger. When “The North Star” is laid out in full, Douglass’ two wives, and even Susan B. Anthony, will be a part of the story.

Music is as key to Fagan’s work as feet, and the company ranges around the globe, and through the centuries, in search of it. “Prelude” is a 1983 work built around dance exercises and the jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach. The 9/11 tribute “In Memoriam” opens in respectful silence before floating on the 16th-century composer Cristobal De Morales. Pennewell’s “Distant Kin” moves to horns over a techno heartbeat. And “Mudan 175 / 39,” a work from 2009, exudes an exotic, Eastern spirituality with brilliantly colored tunics recordings of Chinese composers by Rochester’s Grammy-winning The Ying Quartet.

Garth Fagan Dance is back for shows at 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday.

Shakespeare, Shotspeare, Sockspeare

Credit Erich Camping

As one of the actors noted, “I have a case of Genny Light back at the Hyatt, I filled up the bathtub with eels” – I think he said eels – “we’re ready to have a Rochester Thursday.”

Matt and Heidi Brucker Morgan, who created “Cirque di Fringe: Sideshow,” anchoring Rochester Fringe’s Spiegeltent during its 11-day run, blow off some steam with “Shotspeare,” a drinking game based extraordinarily loosely on “Romeo and Juliet.”

The mix of excitement and fear was palpable in the Spiegeltent as “Shotspeare” opened. Would the audience be forced to do a keg dance in the name of the Bard? No. “We can’t force you to drink,” Morgan said. “But we think it will make the show better.”

And many took on the challenge. While the spirit was bacchanalian, the 60-minute show was time enough to drag only one unwitting guy from the audience to help drain the Genny beers that the actors brought to the stage. Miller paused over a guy who looked like Bill Murray before selecting Kyle Schnepf of Walworth, who acquitted himself well, wearing a ridiculous beer-mug hat as he read his lines in an amateurish yet oddly endearing manner.         

“Romeo and Juliet.” Spoiler alert, if you don’t know the story: The lovers both die in the end. But before the messy conclusion, “Shotspeare” delivers an excellent codpiece, Miller in gold-and-purple-polka-dot clown boxer shorts, bursts of shot drinking, the “Wheel of Soliloquy,” a sight-gag filled Japanese shadow play sex scene between Romeo and Juliet, and only one Trump joke.

And dozens and dozens of white athletic socks, balled up and flung around the room for no reason other than that kind of thing happens at frat parties whenever Shakespeare spontaneously breaks out.

“Shotspeare” returns at 9:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Fringe Day Ten

Gibbs Street, 5 p.m. Comedian Eddie Izzard’s 7 p.m. show in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre is the big deal, but that show is sold out. Gibbs itself will be closed to traffic the next two days for free live music. Uptown Groove starts it off at 5 p.m., followed and hour later by what’s being called the “A Cappella AllStars,” with vocalists The Yellowjackets, Vocal Point and POP. The folky A Girl Named Jenny takes over at 7 p.m., followed by the electronics-enhanced Gold Koa at 8:10 p.m. and the indie rockers Roses & Revolutions at 9:30 p.m.

Check for a complete schedule and tickets. It’s a long one. Among the picks for Friday:

Drag queens! “Truly Divine,” the life and music of the iconic drag queen Divine, is 9 p.m. at School of the Arts’ Ensemble Theatre. Rochester’s own drag icons, Mrs. Kasha Davis and Aggy Dune present “Big Wigs,” their tribute to the music of Cher, Tina Turner, Celine Dion, Liza Minnelli and other women of song, at 10 p.m. at Blackfriars Theatre. Both shows also return Saturday, the final day of Rochester Fringe.

The Extraordinary Muffin Theatre Spectacular, 9 p.m., The Avyarium. Theater, live music and daring physicality by a troupe that features two alumni of PUSH Physical Theatre, Katherine Marino and Avi Pryntz-Nadworny. And all ticketholders get a muffin.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI and Rochester-based writer, is reporting on the Fringe Festival daily at His web site is

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.