The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival defies genres

HAIR-RAISING: "If you're doing improv, you have to be in tune with your audience and feed off them," says Sharon Cooper of dance-improv troupe The Accidentals. The group will perform as part of Random Acts of Fringe at Realta Salon on Wall Street. Photo courtesy of The Accidentals

If a dance recital typically involves a theater, a stage, choreography and a clear distinction between artists and audience, The Accidentals — a local guerrilla-style performance troupe — kind of flies in the face of that tradition. In August, as part of the Lindsey Kelley Dance Summer DanceFest, “We did this piece where we slow-motion jogged down the sidewalk,” says Accidentals member Sharon Cooper. “By people being outside and us going past them, they got involved. They started slow-motion cheering … some people joined in and started slow-motion jogging with us. They became involved because they were there as it was happening, and they became a part of it.”

Those atypical elements — unusual settings, audience participation and improvisation — are all key to The Accidentals’ art. The troupe (including Karen George, Sara Keller, Jamie McDowell and Alexis Miller) unveils new work as part of The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival, which runs Thursday to Sunday, Jan. 21-24. In fact, so fringe is The Accidental’s production that, rather than being onstage at one of the four Asheville Fringe venues, it will take place in and around Realta Salon on Wall Street. (The performance, held twice, is part of the festival’s Random Acts of Fringe free programming.)

Weird and wonderful

The very nature of a fringe festival assures that the various acts occur outside of customary constructs. “This true Asheville oddity offers [more than] 30 local and imported performing artists the opportunity to create and showcase new work,” says a press release for the annual festival, now in its 14th year. Taking its cues in part from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — tThe world’s largest fringe fest, it included more than 3,314 shows last year — the Asheville event’s roster includes “a variety of performance art that defies genre categories, as well as being just plain weird.”

"I always knew I was on the fringe. I knew I didn't fit into the status quo," says Jenette Mackie, who's theatrical cello-rock project Polly Panic performs as part of the Lazoom Bus Fringe Tour
DEEP AND DARK: “I always knew I was on the fringe. I knew I didn’t fit into the status quo,” says Jenette Mackie, whose theatrical cello-rock project Polly Panic performs as part of the LaZoom Bus Fringe Tour. Photo courtesy of Mackie

Among this year’s new eschewers of convention is Jenette Mackie, who describes her project as cello-rock, though she adds, “but that doesn’t even begin to explain it because [I] keep pushing boundaries.” While studying classical performance at the Crane School of Music — “obviously that was not my area, but I wanted to learn to play the cello” — Mackie started Polly Panic, which morphs from band to one-woman-show to alter-ego.

The experimental music-meets-performance-art endeavor evolved as Mackie relocated to Portland and then Asheville. She briefly abandoned both Polly Panic and Western North Carolina for Ecuador. “But I ended up taking my cello with me to South America,” she says.

As far as a response to her playing, she says, despite cultural differences, “It was the same thing there as here. People always look. The hard thing is getting them to stay.” That’s the struggle for any performer — how to engage an audience but also bring them along for the ride. Fringe festivals provide platforms for artists working in experimental mediums, with challenging ideas or pushing boundaries that might disturb as much as delight.

Mackie calls Polly Panic her “different-drummer walk through life,” and her songs draw from her personal experiences with addiction and depression. “I feel like I go into a shamanic trance when I’m on stage. I feel like I step into another person,” she says. “I can do onstage what I can’t do off. I can speak onstage in a way that I can’t speak offstage.” Mackie (who will be releasing a new album on Gold Shift Records this spring) ups the ante of her performance by taking her act — which is currently without a drummer while she works with a loop station — on the LaZoom bus as part of the Fringe Tour. The traveling show includes dancer Claire Dima and installations by Grayson Morris and Carolina Williford. Keith Shubert of Toybox Theatre hosts.

Improv for the people

There’s an element (or several) of the unknown to The Accidentals’ production, too. It was Jocelyn Reese, an Asheville Fringe coordinator, who paired the group with salon owner Lala Essex. “We’re really inspired by the space,” Cooper says of how The Accidentals plan a performance. “Usually we’ll go see a space and just play. It starts as total improv a lot of times.”

She adds, “We have lots of ideas of what we can do in a salon.” Rehearsals revolve around structure and transitions rather than specific moves, since much of the dance happens in the moment. “We might draw a certain motif, mood or style,” says Cooper. “It depends on the piece. We might only want to use big jumps and turns.” For the Asheville Fringe, the performance may include lip-syncing, Whitney Houston music, hair tools used in surprising ways and, perhaps, someone might even have their hair styled.

The Accidentals’ members met as performers and faculty of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre. Inspired by prank collective Improv Everywhere and Daniel Alpuche of Kuns Collective, Cooper, George, Keller, McDowell and Miller decided to form their own troupe. “We’re really interested in bringing dance to the general public — people who may not ever go to a theater to see a show but may just happen to be somewhere downtown where we’re doing a piece,” says Cooper.

So what exactly makes The Accidentals’ performance a fringe act? “It’s not what people would expect to see, even if they knew they were going to see a dance piece in a hair salon,” says Cooper. “Each time we do it, it’s a different piece. It’s a surprise to us each time, too.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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