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Dance Preview: The Wexner Center Presents World Premiere of FluxFlow’s ‘Ursula’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Dance Preview: The Wexner Center Presents World Premiere of FluxFlow’s ‘Ursula’Photo by Kate Sweeney - Provided by FluxFlow
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One of the most heartening changes with the new Wexner Center regime has been a rejuvenated interest in local artists. They bring the 2019 performing arts season to a close with Ursula – a brand new commission from Clintonville’s FluxFlow Dance Company, founded by Columbus native Russell Lepley and his partner Filippo Pelacchi.

FluxFlow rapidly established themselves in the framework of Columbus culture through teaching and performances. I asked Lepley what drew him back to Columbus after a very successful period in Germany and appearances at some of the finest American dance festivals like Jacob’s Pillow.

“Flux and Flow was actually an idea we had when were still living in Germany,” Lepley says. “My husband is Italian and it was actually kind of his idea to move back to Columbus [after eleven years] because I think there was a part of me that was, you know, still equating Columbus – I grew up in Hilliard [when] it was like there is nothing happening in Columbus.”

After some return trips to his hometown, Lepley started to see more happening in Columbus.

“[Pelacchi] was kind of like, ‘Why don’t we go and be close to your family?’ We know we want to have kids, and so there was this will to start something,” Lepley says. “We noticed there weren’t a lot of adult spaces for dance in Columbus and we really love teaching adults; and we both, as dancers, were kind of ready to shift out of [being] ‘just dancers’ and have a little bit more autonomy and say in what we’re doing. We also wanted a set up where we’d be able to make work as well: We’d start performing and making stuff in Columbus.” 

Not long after the studio was up and running, their paths converged with Wexner’s Perfoming Arts Curator Lane Czaplinski.

“A friend of Lane’s was taking ballet classes at Flux and Flow with me [and said] ‘You should go see their show because they know what they’re doing,'” Lepley says. “After the second performance, he offered to have the Wexner commission us for some performances for this coming December.”

Another OSU-connected organization also joined on as collaborator, the Motion Lab at the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD). Those seeds were planted after members of ACCAD saw FluxFlow’s earlier work Red Patience.

“They offered us the residency [and] I kind of had that in the back of my head that I’m going to be able to play with video and stuff,” Lepley says. “I saw a performance that used projections and an image kind of popped into my head, ‘Oh, this is a good fit for this Ursula idea I have.’ Now we’ve had multiple, week-long residencies and we go in every couple of weeks just to kind of touch base and kind of try to see how to integrate the whole system in; it’s been an interesting collaboration.”

Ursula is a collaboration between Lepley, Pelacchi and Kelly Hurlburt who also works with local dance company Seabus. The inspiration grew out of Joanna Newsom’s song “Monkey & Bear.”

“[The piece is] pretty autobiographical in terms of being a dancer and feeling like we wanted a little bit more independence and freedom,” Lepley says. “So a lot of times as a dancer one thing Filippo, my husband, will say, ‘You know, [it’s] like you’re a painter but there’s somebody over your shoulder the whole time kind of adjusting how you make your stroke.’ So we had that feeling of being restrained.”

[The song] is about a monkey and a bear trapped in a circus and the monkey is very, you know, frustrated. It’s kind of venting about the circus director and saying we need to get out of here and then he convinces the bear to go with them and they’re kind of lovers and kind of end up becoming enslaved by the monkey.”

So [the cycle keeps] repeating and changing the company and, eventually, the bear kind of gets itself out of that situation. There’s a real narrative that, as dancers, we kind of went through and can relate to that. And [it’s] something really universal: who hasn’t had a boss they don’t like, a job that was less than ideal? So it felt like there was a relatability to the story and something that we really identified with.”

Photo by Kate Sweeney – Provided by FluxFlow

Lepley served as the choreographer but spoke highly of the collaborative nature of Ursula’s creation.

“I’m named as the choreographer because I came up with the concept and all of the ‘movement generation,’ like actual choreography stuff, is coming from me, but it is very collaborative,” Lepley explains. “I write text and then we discuss it between the three of us. I like to have the say on initial ideas and final decisions, but the editing and refining is done as a group. Filippo is the associate choreographer, hearing me go through my ideas every day.”

That collaborative quality and the sense of moving out of shared comfort zones extends to the work with the narrative inspired by Newsom’s lyrics.

“We have costumes where each of us can put on the head or the mask and become the monkey or the bear. So we are all transitioning between the roles,” Lepley says. “We’re working a little bit more with narrative. I always have an inspiration point – usually either a book or a poem or a song – but I’m not super concerned about making a narrative structure that’s linear. I just want to have, like, an emotional mixture [with a] dynamic, shifting energy that keeps it really watchable and interesting. But for this piece, we really tried out a little bit more, like, a linear narrative and that’s been challenging in some ways but also very nice.”

I asked him to expound on those challenges and Lepley said, “One of the things that was interesting was, previously, we know how we think we’ll do it [based off] a strong image. In this piece, for example, my husband is dancing on point but then [there’s also] really contemporary work like movement where there’s Italian, there’s subtitles, tons of ideas – and that’s kind of generally how we work: of finding enough [of] the focus to fit [these disparate elements] together. And when you don’t have a narrative, it’s easier to put everything just where the balance is just right.”

Whereas [for Ursula], there are some scenes that I had in mind for the latter half of the piece that, once the first half of the piece started to take form, didn’t make sense anymore. The characters that you sort of are building get different motivations or they evolve a little bit. I’m like, ‘Oh, this needs to either not be there or we need to shift it somehow to fit whatever context it has with, you know, the first half of the story.‘”

Also interesting about Ursula, while its text took the initial inspiration from a Joanna Newsom song, none of Newsom’s music is used in the show. The music used is “ Gigue” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

“You know, Bach is very quick – there’s all of these kind of like quick notes, and then there’s a shift in it that’s really dramatic, and then it shifts into something that’s really happy feeling,” Lepley says. “There’s this kind of manic quality to that track that kind of felt like the creative process, and with the monkey character, it relates to this kind of megalomaniac obsessed artist thing. Sometimes we’re using its original form, but we have a local cellist who’s helping us kind of abstract it and shift it. [For one sequence] they turned it into like an oom-pah-pah circusy feeling, and one that’s a little bit more like ambient and pulled out. So we’re using that piece of music, but kind of reinventing it a little bit.”

But in keeping with the overall multidisciplinary approach of the Wexner Center and their own interests, Lepley said, “We’re really interested in seeing how to use a lot of different mediums and then making them cohesive.”

Ursula promises to be a fascinating work as this young Columbus troupe continues to build and deliver on its promise.

Ursula has performances at 8:00 p.m. December 5 through 7 and 2:00 p.m. December 8. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/fluxflow-dance-project.

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