Astounding Feets

Island Fringe Festival 2021: Inner Urban Ecosystem/Kings and Queens

Review | By Sean McQuaid

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Dance shows are often part of the Island Fringe Festival slate, but this year they make up a whole third of the schedule: two of the six shows are dance company productions, Inner Urban Ecosystem by Charlottetown Contemporary Dancers and Kings and Queens by Xclusiv Crew.

Urban dance company Xclusiv Crew was founded in 2010 by Bahamian hip-hop choreographer Joe Dames, whose subsequent collaboration with Dawn Ward added her contemporary and African jazz stylings to the crew. Choreographed by Ward & Dames, Kings and Queens is a series of dance numbers set to recorded music, telling the story of the Dames-Ward duo’s romantic and professional partnership.

Staged largely at night in Connaught Square Park with very ample lighting (and very hungry mosquitos), the show is a busy, high-energy, often joyous amalgamation of hip-hop, jazz, contemporary, breaking and various other styles, all impressively danced in an unconventional space by a team of 22 dancers. A frequently crowd-pleasing entry, it won this year’s Patrons’ Pick of the Fringe Award.

That being said, there are times when the production’s heavily populated, fast-moving dances feel cluttered or rushed or both; and the show’s overall dance party vibe, while infectious and entertaining, impresses as spectacle but feels less fully emotionally engaging than this year’s other IFF entries.

Less spectacular but more impactful is Inner Urban Ecosystem, directed and produced by Taryn Kristalovich and Kylie Fudge Jensen and choreographed by Jensen with Kristalovich and their fellow members of Charlottetown Contemporary Dancers (CCD), which bills itself as “PEI’s premier professional dance company” focusing on contemporary dance.

A contemporary dance performed in Hillsborough Square Park by CCD members Jensen, Kristalovich, Megan Broome, Megan Connors, Callista Gilks, Marissa Laderoute and Asia MacMillan, plus apprentices Isabelle Lee and Molly Rainnie, Inner Urban Ecosystem also features live original vocal and instrumental music performed by Michael Peters, Joce Reyome and Isaac Williams.

CCD’s promos said the show’s performers “will evaluate the park’s microcosm, allowing their personal experience and emotion to be portrayed through their movement and music.” A social media post (also used as a show intro) elaborated more poetically about how the pandemic has kept people isolated but the CCD have found comfort in nature – grass, sunlight, rain, trees, wind – concluding: “The earth held us together at a time when the world was falling apart.” Channeling Gravity Falls, my inner Mabel Pines seconded this sentiment while my inner Stan Pines thought it smacked of hippy-dippy malarkey.

Turns out Mabel had it right: CCD has built something beautiful here. My dance knowledge is limited enough that many finer aspects of style and technique are probably lost on me; but from start to finish, this show feels absorbing and emotionally resonant as the nine dancers move through the grass individually, en masse or in variable smaller combinations – a mesmerizing, ever-shifting array of motion.

Said motion is unified and amplified by an often eerily dreamlike live musical soundtrack courtesy of the Peters-Reyome-Williams trio, sounding as if the town of Twin Peaks had its own musical dance company. The trio’s stellar work helps artists and audience alike focus on the action in a space full of potential distractions, a public park surrounded by residential houses, automobile traffic, pedestrians and more.

A nearby paving crew is at work during the premiere, complete with steamroller, but the CCD crew powers through it. Gilks in particular has a spellbinding solo bit during the height of the paving racket and it never seems to shake her flow or concentration – the steamroller rumbles along, but Gilks and company pretty much flatten it. There’s an apt kind of poetry in that, nature-fueled art pushing through the mechanical drone of the city, like flowers growing out of cracked sidewalks.

Gilks is a fascinating dancer, especially when working low to the ground – capering, scuttling and legs kicking out like pistons, sometimes all at once – but she’s just one component in the engrossing dance machine CCD’s assembled, full of standouts like the impressively deliberate, painstakingly controlled movements of the statuesque Laderoute or MacMillan’s sprightly agility. The importance of teamwork here is underlined by the show’s artful finale, in which all nine dancers combine to form a climactic tableau like some sort of organic Voltron.

What’s it all mean? I’m still not sure. I’m reminded of when I first saw “Revolt in the Fifth Dimension”, a surreally psychedelic 1970 Spider-Man episode crafted from recycled Rocket Robin Hood footage – I didn’t fully get what I was looking at then, but I knew I liked it. The same goes for Inner Urban Ecosystem, whose unique charms are so visually poetic, musically rich, lyrically graceful and strangely moving that it’s my favourite 2021 IFF show, even if I’m not always quite sure what I’m seeing.

Island Fringe FestivalSean McQuaidtheatre
Sean McQuaid

Mild-mannered legislative researcher by day and oddball freelance writer by night, past Buzz editor Sean McQuaid has been a contributor since the '90s and a theatre enthusiast for longer than that. He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, daughter, cat and untold thousands of comic books.