This past weekend, a crowd of nearly 100 people gathered on the top floor of Neighborhood House for Surface Tension, a FringeArts Festival performance that features both social commentary and acrobatic interpretation. The show was produced by Tangle, an all-female aerial dance company founded by Swarthmore College alum Lauren Rile Smith ’08. Surface Tension highlights daily concerns in the modern world, from finding relationships in the digital age to landing a dream job.
The lights dimmed, and viewers were presented with nothing but the sight of several aerial hoops and aerial silk.
“September is a time for new beginnings,” declared one of the characters into the vast and empty darkness.
The audience was then placed into the lives of three individuals who excitedly awaited the clean slate that the new month would bring. One started a new job after graduating from school and planned her future at the office, deciding what kind of person she wants to be from that point on. Another delved into the world of Tinder, eager to find her soulmate. The last individual, an online advice columnist and blogger, helped others with their problems in an unconventional attempt at finding herself.
September was supposed to be a fresh start, but as time progressed, the month became more of a misfortune than a blessing. The new job ended up being too demanding. The character worried that if she acted like herself, she may have been at risk for losing her job. Her boss quite literally “showed her the ropes,” asking her to copy an acrobatics routine to a tee, and because of her inability to do pointe work, she is viewed as incompetent. Everything the individual did was harshly critiqued, and despite her intense desire to do well, she was not perfectly efficient, making her a “bad” employee.
The Tinder relationship that began so well ended up becoming too monotonous and repetitive.
“How do you know if you are in the right story?” both the individual and her partner asked.
The two women perform their individual acrobatics routines at the same time, which provided an interesting contrast to the other trapeze performances. They occupied the same space, but interestingly enough, they did not serve as cohesive units. While they were both comfortable with each other and had similarities, it was evident that they were unsure of whether or not this love was “the one.”
And the advice columnist? She initially saw the ability to write as an amazing experience, one where she was able to play God, but came to the realization that she was being hypocritical as she was not following the advice she worked so hard to preach.
“I don’t need to be happy or fulfilled,” she went on to say. “That comes later right?”
While the show incorporated modern dance, theater, and spoken word, the acrobatics and trapeze provided the most refreshing dynamic for many in the audience. In scenes when life was going well for the individuals, the movements were fluid and smooth, which was emphasized by an upbeat, stress-free music selection. When conflict hit, however, there was an apparent change in the choreography. The music had more angst, the movements became more sharp and direct, and “falling” became a noticeable pattern. The performers would let their bodies fall while maintaining a sense of control in a limited area, like their hands or feet. This detail communicated that moments where we fall do and will occur, but it is important to utilize our strengths to get back up.
The finale of the show tied up some loose ends but overall it provided the audience with a sense of ambiguity, leaving great room for interpretation. The advice columnist gave up her Internet persona for a chance to live on a farm, the couple figured out what did and didn’t work in their relationship, and the newly-employed worker perfected her own routine, one fit for her needs.
Whether these decisions ere long-term solutions or mere quick fixes was left unknown and the show comes to an end with the question, “How do we ever know who we truly are?”
The beauty of Surface Tension lies within the uncertainty that exists in human life and in the play.
Overall, the show generated the message that, sometimes, the plan we make for ourselves isn’t always the plan that actually takes place. This is perfectly acceptable and shouldn’t be seen as a weakness, but rather as a strength. Being able to adapt to the challenges of life is a herculean task, one that should be faced head-on.
Lee Thompson, Tangle aerial acrobatics teacher, performed in Surface Tension as the woman who fought to find love. She explained her appreciation for expressing stories through these mediums because she believes every story is one worth watching. On a social level, however, Thompson loved that she gets to tell strong stories about women that aren’t always funny, but are angry and real.
“Women can do aerials and they can do what they want,” said Thompson. “And they can do it without skimpy clothes or having a certain body figure.”
Lauren Rile Smith resonated with the idea of depicting women’s lives in ways we typically don’t get to see as an audience. She believes that in the media of the 21st century, viewers rarely have the chance to see women’s physical strength or intimate touch between two women.
“In circus arts, someone’s strength is literally depicted,” said Smith. “You don’t get to see that today, so the stage is a really rich place to start.”