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On the fringe, where art isn’t always easy

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Christopher Duggan

Last year Adrianna Thompson, a dancer and choreographer who has taught for the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, saw a performance in Aspen by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Thompson wasn’t sure what to make of the work.

“It was a long piece,” she said. “I loved it, then I hated it, then loved it again. Afterwards, I told the company, ‘Thank you.’”

Thompson would love to see more of that — audiences taking a chance on performances that might make them unsettled and uncertain. Thompson and her husband, actor and director David Ledingham, have lived mostly in Aspen over the past dozen years, and they believe that, despite the town’s reputation for sophisticated cultural tastes, there is a tendency to play it safe in the arts.

“In the bigger cities, people take risks,” said Thompson, who is living in Fairfax, Calif., north of San Francisco. “There are pockets of artists who will go see stuff. In New York, it’s what you do. You might moan about someone else getting a grant …

“But you go. You go and see what else is going on,” Ledingham added. “In this valley, you have these little bubbles. We’re used to New York, where we’re used to going out and seeing what other people are doing. Sometimes what you see may be terrible. But you go.”

Four years ago, Thompson and Ledingham began presenting the Aspen Fringe Festival, which has had modest attendance, provocative presentations and a growing appreciation among the local arts community. Last year, they persuaded Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director of the Aspen Art Museum, to participate on a talk-back panel following a performance of “Red,” a play about artist Mark Rothko. Thompson and Ledingham considered it a coup just to have Jacobson accept the invitation: “That was a big step — to get people to see us not as the competition,” Thompson said. And they were extra thrilled at Jacobson’s positive reaction to the play.

This year’s Aspen Fringe Festival, which opens tonight and runs through Monday at the Aspen District Theatre, bumps up the presence of the local arts community. Mo LaMee, the new director of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, will be on a talk-back panel for a staged reading of a new play, “Bank Job.” Laura Thielen, artistic director of Aspen Film, is set to be part of a talk-back for tonight’s presentation by the dance group Morphoses, which combines dance and film elements. Ken Adelman, who occasionally speaks about Shakespeare at Aspen Institute events, will talk about the Fringe Festival production of “An Iliad.”

Bringing in such guest speakers has not meant taking any of the edginess out of the Fringe Festival presentations. Morphoses will perform “Within (Labyrinth Within),” a work by Pontus Lidberg that has dancers performing in front of integrated moving images. Even the film screen moves to become an actor of sort. Almost all of the action is set in one apartment. The themes are not necessarily easy to digest.

“It’s a love affair, a marriage gone awry, the wife feeling empty and having an affair. Then the husband comes into the affair,” said Thompson, who saw the work performed at the renowned Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts.

Ledingham acknowledges that Homer’s “The Iliad,” about endless war in ancient Greece, has “the sort of subject matter that people shy away from.” “It’s intense — two hours of people sobbing, screaming, wailing,” he said.

But the Fringe Festival production, set for Saturday and Sunday, is a one-person adaptation by Lisa Peterson that gives Homer’s story a modern twist.

“When I read this play, I saw the humor and irony. That’s unique. It made the story accessible. It’s so fresh and new,” Ledingham said, noting that a good chunk of the play, three pages’ worth, is a reading of a list of actual wars.

Even with the irony, though, “An Iliad” is not light material.

“The writer, Lisa Peterson, says, ‘It’s not an anti-war play. It’s a war play,’” Ledingham noted. “It’s an examination of our culture and how violence and warfare are such a part of it.”

The Fringe Festival closes Monday with the staged reading of “Bank Job.” The playwright, John Kolvenbach, had another work, “Love Song,” presented at the Fringe Festival.

“Bank Job,” Ledingham said, “is funny, really creative. The way he uses dialogue — I don’t know anyone else who does it like him. He has a range to his plays. It’s got everything in it.”

Everything, that is, but a variety of settings: The entire play takes place in the executive bathroom in a bank.

Thompson and Ledingham hope audiences will recognize the reward in seeing something other than a musical that has been on Broadway for decades or a movie based on a superhero.

“There’s something about seeing a new kind of play — it changes your status quo. It changes your life,” Ledingham said.

“Don’t call yourself an artist, a dancer, and not see theater when it comes,” Thompson added. “That’s how you learn.”


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