Our assignment was to spread joy.
I am one of the dancers of Úumbal: Nomadic Choreography for Inhabitants, one of the big shows in this year’s Fringe Festival. We are a collective, moving through the streets of South Philadelphia, dancing for and sometimes with our “nomadic companions,” a.k.a. the audience.
Our first performance was Saturday afternoon, and the crowd was large and enthusiastic.
We danced in a crowded intersection, created a “rainstorm” of sound, and “flocked” like birds. We performed the Wobble down a narrow street, while residents watched from stoops or peered out windows.
Another intersection was the scene of a dance battle, where we met up with a hip-hop dance crew and shouted in call and response before showing off our moves. Near the end, some children from the audience spontaneously jumped in.
Later, we moved through the spoked pathways of Mifflin Square Park and ran through its spray fountain. We grew as “trees” in the park and then moved to a sidewalk where we performed in trios, twirling, shimmying, and voguing.
We also lined the triangle-shaped Weinberg Park and then danced in the center, before running around the perimeter in a hand-to-hand daisy chain. And we remained regular people, laughing and talking with the audience in between dances.
Úumbal was created by Mexican choreographer Mariana Arteaga, and it is the second piece to come out of a three-year grant that FringeArts received from the William Penn Foundation’s New Audiences New Places program to produce community projects.
The first, last summer, was Le Super Grand Continental, danced outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art by 150 exhaustively trained amateurs. More than half of Úumbal’s 44 community dancers are back from last year, including me.
This summer, we’ve been nomadic as well, rehearsing at a variety of South Philly locations indoors and out, getting to know the neighborhood around Mifflin Square Park, where people sat on their stoops, asked what we were doing, and sometimes joined in. We enjoyed scoping out the Cambodian and Mexican shops. We even walked through the set of a TV show, Dispatches From Elsewhere, during our dress rehearsal, which gave us great lighting and an appreciative audience of crew members.
There were plenty of challenges: broken pavement, pitted parks, mosquitoes, and long outdoor rehearsals without access to bathrooms.
The results were worth it.
The joyous aspect meant we were allowed to make choices in the dance and not fear mistakes, as long as we kept up the energy and spirit of the project. There are four dances (set to music by Missy Elliott, Janelle Monáe, Bomba Estéreo, and Empress Of), as well as a series of “choreographic actions” like the flocking and the tree maneuver along the route.
But when choreographer Arteaga created Úumbal in 2015 in her native Mexico City, behind the joy was a message of resistance.
“And I remember seeing this and starting to cry," Arteaga said. "It was such a strong, strong political message. And actually was a choreography. So for me, it was like, ‘Oh, like the political power of choreography.’ ”
When Arteaga returned to Mexico City, “for the first time in my life, I felt my city, which is so vibrant, and so full of life, [was] sad and scared. And I could feel it in my body.”
But even while she worried about her people, she noticed “that the police and everybody would rehearse [their actions]. So, I said, ‘We have to rehearse our own freedom.’ "
She wanted "the body to appear in answer to the disappearance.”
Arteaga realized "we need to be visible and we need to go to the streets and to the people that are not expecting us. That’s how the final structure of Úumbal, of this nomadic condition, [came to be].”
Úumbal means “balance” in Mayan, but Arteaga said she chose it for the sound more than the meaning.
“When you say it [with a Spanish accent], it sounded to me like a call from the earth."
Our collective in Philadelphia is the first to stage Úumbal since its Mexico City premiere. The police presence here is to block off the roads so we can dance freely. A team of “brigadiers” also helps us cross the streets safely.
Philly’s version includes all new dances, created by the local team, assistant director Sarah Gladwin Camp and choreographers Katrina Atkin, Clyde Evans, Meg Foley, Rhonda Moore, Sophiann Moore, and Jumatatu Poe, with steps suggested by local people from all walks of life.
Arteaga provided the structure, direction, and one choreographic action to this version of her open-source project.
“I like the experimental nature of the project, where certain performance elements change based on how they are working/not working in the performance,” said Lauren Brown, my commuting buddy, who also danced in last year’s show. (On Saturday, for example, we danced closer together than we expected when a large crowd showed up.)
Gladwin Camp, who like Arteaga, specializes in working with large groups, formed the choreographic team. Then they began scouting neighborhoods for Úumbal.
“We as a team spent two weeks just walking so many miles a day ... which was a stunning way to experience the distances in our city.”
Arteaga wanted a variety of streets, spaces, and buildings.
“We basically landed on this route because there were so many people out and so many different cultures and backgrounds of people walking around,” Gladwin Camp said. “Every time we were in the park, people were extraordinarily friendly and lots of them didn’t even speak English and would come just like start doing dances with us.
"That was like really sparky and fun for us.”
And now for all of us.
Free performances 7 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday, beginning on Fifth Street between Shunk and Oregon.
Information: 215-413-1318 or fringearts.com