A potent evening of live dance and drama from Aspen Fringe Festival

After these long months with scant live performances, what do you want to see when life returns to the stage? Is it escapist entertainment? Is it art that reflects the world wrought by coronavirus and its concurrent crises?

I don’t think we know yet what we want or what we’ll get. But the perseverent and high-minded creative team at the Aspen Fringe Festival, in its two-night “FallFest 2020” presentation at the Aspen District Theater Sept. 25 and 26, made a case for art that goes to the heart of what we’re experiencing.

The seven pieces curated for this special two-night live event all aimed to shine a light on the struggle for human connection in this isolated and anxious moment.

This potent program, performed by masked actors and dancers in multimedia pieces onstage for a distanced and masked audience of 50 in the seats, felt like an essential expression.

In “l’amore verticale,” by Italian choreographer Annarita Rinconi, the dancers Samantha Altenau and Giacamo Bavutti performed onstage as video of the pair played on the screen behind them. Video showed them each alone in the forest, alone at home, mimicking some of the dreary and lonelier moments of the pandemic lockdown, while on-stage their physical bodies sought to connect. The New York-based pair, who partnered with Fringe Fest dance director Adrianna Thompson in Aspen this summer while on furlough from Martha Graham 2 and Carolyn Dorfmann Dance, embodied the struggling but hopeful heart of the FallFest program.

There were gut-punch moments in the dramatic material, such as the interior monologue “She Left Home for Awhile,” written and read by playwright Simon Stephens over a video of Fringe Fest director David Ledingham performing solo. In stream-of-consciousness style, it captured a numb day-to-day of alienation and isolation and attempted to define home (“Home is not the place where I keep my toothbrush”) and came close to putting a finger on the despondent feelings so prevalent in six months of coronavirus restrictions. The piece never mentions the pandemic by name, instead talking about this emotional fallout as a timeless phenomenon that’s always been with us.

John Kolvenbach’s “Until the World is the World Again” addresses the historic moment directly and self-consciously in a high-concept two-hander. It depicts a young American man in 2020 (Aidan Ledingham) and a young American woman during the flu pandemic of 1918 (Julia Foran) writing love letters across time. But instead of looking much at these public health crises in themselves, it centers instead on a romantic relationship and the miracle of any love that works. Quickly the viewer forgets the time-travelling correspondence and instead gets invested in the hope that these two might find a way to connect.

In Sharr White’s “Carrie,” a waitress (Eileen Seeley) in a mask steps into an alley for a cigarette break. Projected above her are the abandoned streets of New York, photographed during the springtime stay-home period. Her interior monologue drifts from the pandemic to 9/11 and the period since, which she broadly defines as “The Madness.” Was our era of madness inevitable, she wonders? If history played out differently, how different would our individual lives be? Seemingly a simple and straightforward solo speech, it sends you down a rabbit hole of counter-factual thinking.

The video dance piece “Shelter in Place” featured 10 memebes of Soulskin Dance performing in their personal quarantine spaces — cramped apartments and in diverse environments ranging from a city rooftop to the ponds at Burlingame here in Aspen. We have all seen — and perhaps are tired of — dance and at-home webcam performances over the six months since the springtime lockdown. But watching it with an audience was a novel experience that lent these DIY clip a new and unexpected power, especially in the cathartic and collective laugh that came in a moment when a dancer — performing in his garage — was interrupted by his dog. He attempted to continue dancing while the animal tried harder to play with him until he surrendered — a classic work-from-home moment we’ve all experienced or witnessed in some form.

Laughing with a crowd in a theater, and applauding with a crowd in a theater, never felt so good. There may have been just 50 in the seats each night, but being there felt like a small victory. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, an audience is an audience no matter how small.

There were temperature checks at the door and a short questionnaire. Entrance to the theater was staggered, so that no two groups were simultaneously looking for seats. Groups were seated in every other row and at least three rows apart, ushered by the husband and son of Fringe Fest’s new associate artistic director Nikki Boxer.

The evening ended with “Closer,” an aching pas de deux choreographed by Thompson and performed by Altenau and Bavutti that most directly depicted the evening’s theme of human connection.

If you asked me last week if I’d want to spend the night with live COVID-related art, I might’ve said no. But the performances surprised me, as did the responses they elicited. Ultimately, I found, the Fringe Fest’s return to the stage was an act of hope. Watching Bavutti’s facemask puff out and in as he panted heavily through the tail end of the strenuous “Closer,” the effect wasn’t necessarily the downer you might imagine. You weren’t thinking about what you were missing from this constrained performance. It somehow didn’t make you miss what couldn’t be done.

Instead, no, it was a statement of possibility and gratitude. A belief in the art itself, in the expression of ideas onstage. Nevermind the masks and restrictions. This was an act of hope.