A large crowd filled the lobby and looped around the entrance to the TheaterROCS stage at Xerox Auditorium Friday night as people waited patiently for the doors to open for PUSH Physical Theatre’s first show at Rochester Fringe. I gleaned from snippets of conversation in the rapidly overheating space that many had seen PUSH perform before and were coming back for more. They were, in PUSH parlance, “PUSHERS,” as followers are playfully dubbed on the group’s website.
Darren and Heather Stevenson founded the group in Rochester in 2000, wanting a vehicle in which to perform and create that embodied not just dance and not just theater, but a host of other disciplines, including mime, gymnastics and acrobatics. In short, it was to encompass whatever physical vocabulary they needed in order to convey what they wanted to express. In fact, the company includes a classically trained actor, Jonathan Lowry; a parkour (climbing urban spaces) instructor, martial arts expert and gymnast, Andrew Salmon; and an actor, juggler, and gymnast from Cirque du Soleil, AviPryntz-Nadworny.
The company’s first piece last night, the premiere of “The Evolution of Aviation,” immediately demonstrated the impact of combining these various forms of movement and expression. The members of PUSH possess a startling ability to transform their bodies into other entities through movement, sound, and expression. Without using any props, the performers became gliders, helicopters, and planes, as well as the pilots of these vehicles. Starting with the basic position of laying stomach to the ground, arms hovering sideways like wings -- the plunky strains of ragtime music establishing the time period - the group progressed to more elaborate depictions of flying machines. A flurry of hands became propellers. A central dancer supported a smaller dancer in the air on either side of him to become a plane’s wings. PUSH possesses the beguiling ability to access the inner world of the imagination through physical transformation, that innate gift of early childhood that most of us, sadly, left behind long ago.
The audience responded with resounding enthusiasm throughout the show, bursting into laughter or chuckling with appreciation again and again. In fact, humor and accessibility are part of the group’s wide appeal. Unusual for a dance company -- almost unorthodox, in fact -- Darren Stevenson spends substantial time on stage during every show addressing the audience, his truly funny anecdotes and insightful, self-effacing quips chipping away at that limiting wall between performers and their audience.
By far my favorite piece of the evening was the gut-wrenching “Web,” a dark departure for the group. The 2011 piece closely examines both the savagery of abuse and violence and its emotional and psychological fall-out. Lowry was superb as the victim, literally harnessed and roped to his torturers who yanked him around and mimicked striking him with ugly sneers on their faces. Lowry’s classical background was evident, as finely filtered expressions moved across his face to convey the pain, fear, and bewilderment at the brutality he was enduring. His body was no less expressive than his face. He recoiled again and again as would an animal under attack, each time his resistance fading incrementally. The most affecting 10 seconds of the night’s performance -- in fact, the most affecting 10 seconds of anything I’ve seen in Fringe so far -- transpired after the brutes had finally tired of their tormenting, unleashed Lowry and left him, a collapsed heap of humanity. Salmon turned abruptly then and mimed a final fierce jerk in the air. Brilliantly choreographed, Lowry responded as if he were still wearing the rope; his body spasmed up into the air, then collapsed back into itself.
(NOTE: PUSH Physical Theatre performs again Saturday, September 22, at 10:30 p.m. in the Xerox Auditorium. Don’t miss it.)