“You Don’t Say!”: Rile Smith’s ’08 Takes Circus Arts to Philly Fringe

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Preparing for a rehearsal Tuesday night, Lauren Rile Smith ’08 adjusted trapeze bars, secured a hanging lyra (a steel aerial hoop), and positioned a long rope, fastened to the rafters. Around her, fellow performers stretched and warmed up with pushups, cartwheels, and quick rope climbs—a mere hint at the physical feats to come. And while the practice space was not ideal (the full performance requires an 18-foot ceiling!), the performers of Tangle Arts Movement, a small Philadelphia-based circus arts company, practiced their newest show with strength, grace, humor, and masterful coordination.

Understanding Tangle and its newest show, “You Don’t Say,” requires throwing out all preconceived notions of what “circus arts” entail. Forget sparkly-leotard clad performers doing superhuman tricks with big smiles and even bigger disconnection from their audience.

Tangle’s innovative approach allows eight women, each with her own unique background, shape, size, and personality to perform a narrative with movement, dance, and aerial acrobatics that are as raw as they are beautiful. Part circus, part dance, and part theatrics, the company blurs the lines dividing traditional performance genres to create an interdisciplinary hybrid with its own movement vocabulary.

“You Don’t Say” begins with a solo dance to “Moves like Jagger” by Maroon 5,playfully setting the scene for a dinner party among friends. The other women arrive onto the stage one by one, or two by two, in a mix of combinations that shift and blend throughout the show. The show itself is divided into sections that run smoothly into each other, each with a distinct song, apparatus, quality of movement, and sense of characterization.

In some scenes, the entire company was on the stage, each performing remarkable feats in the air, causing my eyes to dart back and forth, straining to catch it all. In solos and duets, whether twisting around the rope, dancing on the trapeze bar, or climbing through the lyra, the performers moved fluidly and expressively. Particularly notable were the lines and shapes of the women as they used the apparatuses as extensions of their bodies. They didn’t just make the movements look effortless: they looked natural.

And that natural quality in each motion—from walking across the stage to dancing in the air—is what struck me most about Tangle Movement Arts. More than just interesting or entertaining, the show made me consider and question what it means to be strong. Strength can be graceful. It isn’t just about muscle mass; it comes from mastery over ones own body and the ability to communicate through movement. In their leggings, shorts, and t-shirts, the women—one of whom is seven months pregnant—proved that physical prowess can have as big a place in everyday life as it does on the trapeze.

The Daily Gazette had the opportunity to speak with Smith about her journey from Swarthmore to Tangle, and the production of “You Don’t Say.”

The Daily Gazette: How did you get into this medium, coming from Swarthmore?

Lauren Rile Smith:At Swarthmore I studied English literature and philosophy, graduating in 2008. At Swarthmore it seems like the only thing I did was textual analysis, the furthest thing from performing circus arts– but my journey to aerial acrobatics actually began my junior year at Swarthmore.

Quinn Bauriedel ’94 of Pig Iron Theater Company, another alum as well as part-time faculty in the Theater department, came to Swat to teach a two-week workshop on acrobatics. I signed up on a whim and found myself fascinated and challenged in a brand-new way. I had never done anything more physical than ride my bike around campus. I also had dealt with chronic joint pain for years that kept me thinking of my body as an uncomfortable and untrustworthy place I occupied, instead of something I could deliberately shape or use to making art. I couldn’t do a single handstand during Quinn’s workshop, but it reframed my perspective and gave me a goal over the next six years. Now I do pull-ups for fun!

DG: Why this art form? And how was Tangle Movement Arts founded?

LRS: I find a radical potential in aerial acrobatics to question our assumptions about bodies, gender, and relationships between people. Circus is a context in which women build muscle, men move gracefully, friends hold each other in intimate places, and everyone can defy gravity. This excitement inspired me to found Tangle, and in 2010 I gathered a group of seven other troublemakers based in Philadelphia. “You Don’t Say” is our most ambitious show so far; integrating circus arts with dance-theater, it tells the evening-length story of seven friends at a party, with all the dramas and intrigues that happen at a gathering of old and new friends.

DG: What message or feeling do you hope to convey in “You Don’t Say”?

LRS: I feel that in mainstream storytelling, relationships between women are frequently erased or turned into stereotypes. In contrast, we wanted to make a circus-theater show that reflected our largely queer and female community, expressing the variety of ways women relate to one another – old friend, old ex, new buddy, new flame, source of tension, source of support. And I love that we get to do this with the literal support of holding another person up in the air!

“You Don’t Say” will be playing in Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe at 8:00 p.m. on September 13-15, and at 3:00 p.m. on September 15. Performances are at Philadelphia Soundstages, 1600 N. 5th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122. Tickets cost $15 each ($10 for students).

Photos by Lea Deutsch.

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