Deviant and unpredictable

Fusing elements of vaudeville, theater, dance, music and spoken-word poetry, the Asheville Fringe Festival is an all-you-can-experience buffet of strange and stimulating performance art. Featuring living art installations, soundscapes and singing puppeteers, the festival's only uniting element is the testing and exploration of boundaries.

Each participant defines that process individually. "A critical part of the Fringe Festival is that artists are given license to try out new work: It's a place for artistic experimentation," says festival organizer and performer Jim Julien. Breaking away from traditional, narrative-driven work, participating artists strive to create original art that is too wild and weird to fit into a genre.

Now in its eighth year, the Fringe Festival offers a four-night marathon of avant-garde, multi-art entertainment at three downtown venues. The BeBe Theatre is considered Fringe Festival headquarters, where performances have been staged for seven years and counting. Since then, the festival has gone mobile, partnering with LaZoom Tours for an unruly show that tours through downtown Asheville and the River Arts District.

This year the festival has added a venue to the roster, introducing a two-night run at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. "We hope that each venue will have its own vibe, where audiences will experience something that they have never seen before, something enchanting, entertaining and horrifying," says Julien with a grin. Parents be forewarned, the content of the Fringe Festival is challenging by nature and is rated R. Fringe fare is for mature, adventure-seeking audiences only. Please leave children safely at home.
      Since each venue offers a one-of-a-kind performance-art experience, here is a description of what to expect at each locale. Choose wisely, or see them all with an all-access Fringe Festival Freak Pass.

Experimental sound at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center

Imagine lying in the center of a dark room as musicians, perched in the corners, create live soundscapes. Surrounded by keyboards and speakers, wires and tools, the sound of obscure instrumentals and electronic babble fills the space. On the ceiling above, flickering computer-generated images accompany the rise and fall of ambient noise. Welcome to Fringe Audio, where performers, musicians and dancers gather to create an environment focused on sonic experimentation and audio surprises.

"By incorporating elements of improvisation as well as prepared works [featuring] instruments that have been altered to create specific kinds of sounds, we're creating an immersive performance experience," Julien says, describing the inspiration behind Fringe Audio. "We are asking people to put their expectations to the side, to let [the experimental sounds] absorb in." Since the Arts Center has hosted a number of events on the works of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, who were both involved in Black Mountain College's experimental music scene in the '50s, it seems an especially fitting space for Fringe Audio to début.

Featured performers include Chandra Shukla, producer of the found-sound band Xambuca, presenting a piece titled "Reciprocity." Using field recordings, electronic music and improvisation, Shukla says that the piece is "based on mathematical reciprocals of tonal fragments that relate to reciprocals. It's actually complete nonsense when you listen to it," says Shukla, laughing. "Though it has structure, it sounds like the structure is completely obliterated."

Butoh dancer Julie Becton Gillum will slink through the crowd performing a dance that explores "mythological stories about humans becoming trees, about trees that come to life and about the manipulation of nature." Graphic images projected onto the ceiling will be orchestrated by artists/VJs Megan McKissack and Jason Scott Furr. Performance artist Elisa Faires presents a mini-opera based on the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. And, the Western Carolina Scared Harp Singers, an old-hymn singing troupe from Warren Wilson College, explores new and old musical traditions through shape-note singing. 

A murder mystery on wheels: The Fringe Festival LaZoom Tour

A murder-mystery crime case unfolds as Fringe on wheels exposes the wild side of Asheville. In addition to the on-the-bus murder mystery, the show will make three stops on its route through the city, stopping at the vintage boutique and artists collective Royal Peasantry on Lexington Avenue, at the Sacred Embodiment Center on Carolina Lane and at a mystery location yet to be announced (expect to be shocked and surprised, Julien says).

Pantopon Rose, a singer performing in experimental-music band The Eyelash Carpets, describes the scene at Royal Peasantry as being a piece of living installation art. Walking into the boutique "will feel like stepping into a very bizarre dream: a surreal environment that people might otherwise not feel very comfortable in," Rose says. Audiences will "walk into a world inspired by the Dada movement [an experience that aims to] satisfy the need to escape the reality of our world," she says. "It will be nothing but pleasure for the senses."

Around the corner at the Sacred Embodiment Center, juggling troupe Forty Fingers and a Missing Tooth will tantalize audiences with tricks of dexterity as they perform with members of Runaway Circus/Loose Caboose. "Runaway Circus is a collection of smaller circus-arts groups that specialize in juggling and acrobatics," says Julie Vann, coordinating director of the festival and Runaway performer. After the circus sideshow, a belly-dance troupe brings the seductive Middle Eastern dance into the realm of avant-garde performance art.

Fringe in a (black) box: Movement theatre and dance at the BeBe

Considering the other venues hosting Fringe Festival events, happenings at the BeBe Theatre take place in a rather calm theatrical setting, as audience members sit upright in stationary positions as the show unfolds before them. Though the setting is more conventional, the featured works of experimental theatre and dance promise to be just as deviant and unpredictable.

In a piece choreographed and performed by Moving Women, the local company seeks to break the line between performer and observer by creating a "chance dance" where audience participation shapes the dance as it is performed live.  "We'll have a set of rules and will be creating a piece around audience feedback, who will be making choices about movement vocabulary, about lighting and about the music," says Kathy Meyers, founding member of the company. "We want the audience to get involved with the creative process. It's a collaboration, and I'm intrigued to see what the audience will help us create."

Writer and spoken-word artist John Crutchfield works in collaboration with Claire Elizabeth Barratt to present "Fire Safety: A Vaudeville Romance." Crutchfield writes that the piece is "an absurdist take on that most absurd of all human absurdities: love; combining dance, drama, transvestitism, wrestling, dinosaur-puppetry and a vigorous fireman." Additional performers include the Lymphatic Players, traveling from Tennessee to present works of sketch-theater focusing on health issues. Exploring a similar theme, The Naked Stark Dance Company investigates body issues through improvisational and modern dance.

For Asheville residents the Fringe Festival is a laboratory for creative exploration that supports a broad network of performance artists. For visitors, the festival is a wholly unique experience that highlights just how wonderful and zany Asheville's art scene can be. Don't miss this chance to see the bright, bizarre and often unhinged works produced by artists on the edge. 

Where and when?

Fringe Audio: Performances at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, located at 56 Broadway, on Friday, Jan. 22, and Saturday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. $12/$10 students. Info:

Fringe on Wheels: Board the LaZoom Bus at the BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St., on Friday, Jan. 22, and Saturday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. $12/$10 students.

Fringe in a (black) box: Performances at the BeBe Theatre on Friday, Jan. 22 and on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee performance on Sunday, Jan. 24, at 3 p.m.  $12/$10 students.

About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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