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Fringe Day Six: Dancing around the architecture in the time of coronavirus

Ian Timothy Forsgren performing in Proximity.
Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival
Ian Timothy Forsgren performing in Proximity.

What does dance performance actually look like in the pandemic era? The dance company Pones looks to answer this question literally in its 45-minute video performance “Proximity,” which is available on demand as part of this year’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. 

Pones is a contemporary dance company that functions as a collective, having included more than 200 artists and 80 different organizations in its site-specific performances in the Cincinnati, Chicago, and Indianapolis areas. Pones’ focus on site-specific dance feels especially prescient as conventional performance venues have been rendered obsolete, at least temporarily, by the novel coronavirus.

And “Proximity” is a prime example of how dance companies can adapt, not only to the challenges of COVID-19, but to the seemingly constrictive paradigm of virtual performance itself. 

In this case, the performance is essentially a dance film, and it’s a kind of master class in how online fringe festival presentations should be done.

The work features 18 dancers, moving through mostly outdoor settings that include sprawling urban architecture, beautiful city sculptures, and even inadvertent concrete set design. The cinematography is so intriguing and well done as to ostensibly become a distinctive character in the piece.

The camerawork renders the dancers in slow-motion at times, as they each dance a self-contained dance, and yet their relative closeness to one another -- even at roughly 6 feet apart -- makes for a powerful statement about the nature of connection in the time of COVID. A particularly poignant moment comes when such a sequence could not only be interpreted as the connectivity between individuals, but perhaps as a physical manifestation of the airborne virus passing from person to person.

At times, the camera zooms in close as it pans quickly from one dancer to the next. There is a real fluid quality, not only to the physical movement, but to the film direction as well. The performance transitions seamlessly from section to section, in large part due to cleverly shot segues and edits that give the feeling of continuous flow.

Creating and producing “Proximity” was clearly a collaborative effort, with seven different choreographers and six assistant cinematographers. That said, Ian Timothy Forsgren deserves special accolades, having served as the director of photography, editor, a choreographer, and a featured dancer on the project.

With Chihei Hatakeyama and Shawn Eisbernd’s subdued ambient electronic soundtrack, which uses drone elements prominently, “Proximity” is a highly meditative work. Paradoxically, the choreography is visceral, as the dancers move with flailing and flowing limbs. The combined mediums of dance, video, and music give the work a decidedly ruminative, even tranquil quality that feels particularly refreshing. 

I can’t entirely decide whether or not Jykreika Guest’s poetic voiceover, which describes our human condition during the pandemic more than halfway through the performance, was necessary. The words are lovely and the feelings communicated are important, but I wonder if the full impact of “Proximity” might have been better felt without words.

That minor caveat notwithstanding, “Proximity” is worth making the time to watch, and has quickly risen to my short list of virtual Rochester Fringe highlights so far.

“Proximity” is available to view on demand via through Sept. 26. Free.