December 12, 2017
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Artists make ‘magic’ out of light in Fort Knox State Park dance piece

By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

Standing on the grassy area just outside the entrance to the Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observatory in Prospect, Alison Chase said her latest multimedia dance piece, “No Plan B,” set to premiere there on Aug. 24, was inspired by “unexpected alliances.”

With Chase, a nationally renowned modern dance choreographer who has lived in Brooksville for 20 years, that’s no surprise. Over the course of her more than 40-year career in dance she has made a point of forging connections with a wide array of creative, often unexpected people, from puppeteers and steel drum bands to local schoolchildren and backhoe operators.

Chase’s tent is very big — literally, in the case of “No Plan B,” as her company of dancers and collaborators will perform on a stage set in a huge sailcloth tent, pitched next to the bridge and observatory, within the confines of Fort Knox State Park. The Prospect performances of the piece are set for 8 p.m. Aug. 24-27; four more performances are set for 8 p.m. Aug. 31-Sept. 3 at Thompson’s Point in Portland.

In “No Plan B,” digital light projections, music and dance will all co-exist harmoniously for one magical, colorful hour, created by new media artist Gene Felice, by composer Franz Nicolay, and by Chase for her Maine-based dance company, Alison Chase Performance.

“It’s all about creating an alignment of forces that are unexpectedly put together,” said Chase, who in 1975 co-founded the famed Pilobolus Dance Company, which she left in 2006. “The idea of a number of different elements working together, that’s a big part of the narrative … the end result is what we hope is an immersive, multi-sensory experience.”

Last fall, when she was first imagining what would become “No Plan B,” Chase sought someone who could use light projections to turn a tent into a fantastical, illusory playland in which her dancers could perform. Last fall she asked Owen Smith, director of the University of Maine’s Innovative Media Research Center, if there was anyone at the IMRC that could do such a thing.

Smith knew just the guy: Felice, also a professor of New Media at UMaine and the director of the Coaction Lab, housed at the IMRC.

Felice, who came to UMaine in 2014 from the University of California Santa Cruz, works with high-definition digital projectors to “wrap” surfaces in projections, creating the illusion of three-dimensional images out of nothing more than light. He has wrapped structures ranging from weather balloons floating in a lake, to a lighthouse in Santa Cruz to, last year, the Thomas Hill Standpipe in Bangor.

For “No Plan B,” he’s acting as a kind of set designer — a set that has no tangible form, and yet can move around, change shape, color and size, and interact with the dancers.

“Essentially, I’m wrapping light onto surfaces that aren’t flat. I’m creating the setting that the dancers move through. I’m creating the landscape,” said Felice. “It’s not something you would typically be able to experience in a traditional theater. It’s something totally different.”

Chase and Felice first workshopped what would become “No Plan B” with a small tent set up in the IMRC’s black box theater, hosting a series of small-scale performances over the winter of 2017. More trial runs were held in the spring, and by the summer, “No Plan B” had taken shape, with Chase’s signature style of highly physical, visually dynamic choreography at its center.

Accompanying “No Plan B” will be original music from New York-based composer Franz Nicolay, best known to fans of indie rock as one of the co-founders of rock band The Hold Steady, a band he re-joined in 2016 after a six-year break. While his work with The Hold Steady and other bands like the World/Inferno Friendship Society are more rock-based, Nicolay’s music for “No Plan B” is much more experimental and, at times, ambient.

“Franz is such an interesting man, and he’s so easy to work with, despite the fact that we’ve had very little face to face time,” said Chase. “It was an interesting collaboration, because the music has to make room for both the projections and the dancers. It all has to co-exist. It all has to have room to breathe.”

Fort Knox State Park has, increasingly, become as much of a performance venue as it has a historic site. Chase performed with her company at the Fort last summer — “Dancing With Steel,” performed outside, uncovered, in the Fort’s inner courtyard — and Felice has twice so far this year done projection mapping at the Fort, with his students at the Coaction Lab. Though “No Plan B” won’t be performed directly inside the Fort, the immediate surroundings of the tent still lend to the performance — from the green and verdant riverbanks, to the birds and other wildlife in the river, to the monumental pillars of the bridge, towering over the landscape.

Nearly every weekend each summer at the Fort is booked with festivals, theatrical performances, historical re-enactments and other events, culminating with the Fright at the Fort Halloween event in October.

“Our mission is not just to preserve and restore the Fort, but also to enhance its cultural and educational value to Maine,” said Leon Seymour, president of the board of directors of the Friends of Fort Knox. “We’re very open-minded about our programming … by sponsoring really diverse, divergent events we can reach a huge cross section of people.”

Both Chase and Felice look forward to future opportunities to utilize the Fort for all sorts of performances and installations. Felice is just getting started, in terms of the sorts of things he and his students can do in and around the Fort — and elsewhere in the state, too.

“It’s a huge, amazing canvas. The sky’s the limit,” said Felice. “There are so many beautiful places along the coast and interior in Maine that have the potential to work for this. There’s just a lot of potential out there.”

“No Plan B” will be performed at 8 p.m. Aug. 24-27 at Fort Knox State Park, near the Penobscot Narrows Observatory. Tickets are $25 and are available online at www.alisonchase.org/noplanb, or at the park. Mia’s Springrolls and Sesame Noodles food truck will be there, and Verona Wine & Design will serve snacks, beer and wine.

 


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