By Pete Zamplas
The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival next week has much mystery about its varying and often zany acts, and wonder if a dance troupe can win the fan favorite award for the third year in a row.
Meredith Yuhas & Dancers seeks that honor, in the 17th annual local festival of the bizarre and hilarious. The mostly-female interpretive dance troupe from Columbia, S.C. is reigning two-time overall Fan Favorite winner, by festival patrons’ online voting.
This time, the group’s routine is entitled Radical Softness.
“Softness is explored as resistance using make-shift walls, bricks, feathers, and bodies flying through the air,” Meredith Yuhas explained. She added the act “wrestles with ‘softness’ through contemporary dance, as a boundless form of resistance. Within the work, dancers tell their own textured stories of marginalized identities living in the Southeastern United States — as we petition for compassion in the hardest of times. When people are afraid of difference and are clinging to familiarity, we wonder how softness allows us to see each other more generously.”
Yuhas takes the large stage of a marquee venue new to Fringe — the Wortham Center. Showtimes for Yuhas are Saturday, Jan. 25 at 9-10 p.m. then Sunday, Jan. 26 at 4-5 p.m., also in the Wortham Center for the Arts’ new Tina McGuire Theatre. That is at 18 Biltmore Ave.
Yuhas’ two prior routines were “Yuhas: Experiments in Connection: You and I, Us and Them” in 2018, then last year Physical Poetry with narration by Charleston, S.C. Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker. Meredith Yuhas, who is based in NYC, choreographs.
Last year, a tug of war was the climactic action symbolizing conflict. There was much leaning against other dancers, and hoisting them up. Yuhas used such motion to “reflect a world of discourse and kinesthetic empathy, revealing our position of response in the face of adversity — through poetry, dance, and a lot of duct tape.”
Two years ago, moves included keeping balance while tiptoeing on the back of a dancer, who steadily shifted in a circle. Wrestling-like moves best reflected what Meredith Yuhas calls “connection and disconnection.” She described a theme of “emergence of the individual into society-examining power structures, diversity and privilege.”
The cast of mostly young ladies each year draws from Columbia (S.C.) College. The group is diverse racially and in body shape and size, as many Fringe patrons observed with praise. They were impressed how well the larger dancers moved.
Several Yuhas dancers said they like smashing physical stereotypes, and routines’ fast-paced and seemingly chaotic movement such as rushing barely by one another. They like the themes of social interaction and conflict. As one dancer noted, the motion “expresses the artistic self, of what we’re feeling.”
Floor lightning by Yuhas featured spotlights, and varied to alter moods. The routine was on much of the Mothlight club floor to utilize an area much larger than on its small stage.
Fringe Artistic Co-Directors Jocelyn Reese and Jim Julien aim to “provide artists with opportunities to explore the edges of their work, to collaborate across genres, and to bring new and innovative performances to culturally-adventurous audiences.”
The festival blends artists new to Fringe, and familiar Fringe award winners such as Asheville-based puppeteers Keith Shubert and Edwin Salas. Salas presents Dracula Killed My Mom — with as he notes plenty of his “horror puppets and (fake) blood.” Shubert, in his Toybox Theatre, tells stories in Wortham with his hand-crafted puppets in The Miraculously Inventive Machine of Charlie Mean. Charlie is a bullied youth, who strikes back.
The Cardboard Sea is back again. The Asheville area acting troupe is led by Hendersonville High School drama instructor Todd Weakley. The group won the Fringe ’19 award for work that “pushed the boundaries of storytelling,” for Psych. The new act, Centrifuge, is a dark comedy about a 25-year reunion of former youth campers. It has adult themes and, as Weakley explained, “explores the limits of friendship, and the challenges of maintaining those connections in our post-truth era.” It is paired with Fringe newcomer Lau Magie’s one-woman show Monsters under the Bed, set to original music. This is about a stifled woman confronting fears and her past.
The Perspective Collective debuted in Fringe in ’19, and returns with an opera about a nuclear meltdown entitled The Pride of Pripyat: Tales from the Chernobyl Disaster. The Adventure Society performs Space Command: Pathogen, about a vicious disease threatening the entire universe in the year 3112. The audience participates, but needs to sign up in advance. “Players will join the show, as if they were protagonists in a video game.”
The free festival kickoff party is Sunday, Jan. 19 at 5-9 p.m. in The Lazy Diamond.
“Random acts of fringe” are also free. They include the Flying Catastrophe Circus of nine performers with aerial arts, roller skating, “tap dancing contortion,” juggling and other “amazing feats of balance and imagination.” The circus is on Saturday, Jan. 25, at 5-5:30 p.m. in Empyrean Arts. Later that night, Claire Dima does a glass-walking sideshow as “goddess of the crossroads” in Girl and Goblin in the River Arts District.
Free Fringe after-parties start about 10 p.m. They are Thursday in The Block off Biltmore, Friday in The Mothlight with Dancekrieg techno dance performers, then Saturday in Sly Grog Lounge with Cilla Vee Life Arts experimental and artists the act. The closing party in The Crow & Quill is Jan. 26, 7-10 p.m. is for patron Freak Pass holders, performing artists and staff. Ballots are filled out there, for various categorical Fringe awards. The Accidentals improv dancers will express “awkwardness of matrimonial mayhem.” Credential badges are required to enter this small venue.
The LaZoom Room/LaZoom Bus Fringe Tour at 76 Biltmore Ave. houses Fringe Central for buying Fringe tickets. Check ashevillefringe.org for more festival details, and to buy tickets (by 3 p.m. Thur.-Sat., noon Sunday).