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SoundScape Movement Fest

An innovative Chapel Hill festival combines improvisational dance and music

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A nude, imperiously bald Bulgarian in high heels reads poetry. A woman plays a xylophone concealed beneath a voluminous hoopskirt. A man uses a miked and modified tape measure like a Chinese ribbon, weaving a dense tapestry of sound and motion in the air. Dancers in domino masks struggle against an amorphous duet for box fan and blender. Ambient music wafts out of a teepee. Puppets cavort in the background.

These sublimely weird moments comprise a representative digest of the sort of spectacle you can expect from the SoundScape Movement Fest, which will take over Carrboro and Chapel Hill May 18-21. Local and international artists will present performance art, video, music, and lots of live movement, or, as you might know it, "dance."

But don't call it a dance festival. Not for nothing is the d-word conspicuously absent from the festival's name. According to principal SoundScape organizer Alexis Mastromichalis, the term "dance" conjures up a lot of stereotypes: "Here's the stage; there's the wings; you come in and out." Not content simply to be modern, with all of the limits the term implies, SoundScape strives to be proactively progressive, with an emphasis on the avant-garde, extemporization, multimedia collaboration, community education and spatial transformation--all on an accessible human scale.

Mastromichalis, a native of Raleigh, studied dance at George Washington University, focusing there on the integration of live music, dance and structured improvisation. Although she graduated only three years ago, Mastromichalis has an impressive résumé as a dancer and organizer: She served as the artistic director of Washington Free Collaboration, a seven-dancer, seven-musician troupe that staged shows all over Washington, D.C., for three years. She received emerging artist grants from the Orange County Arts Commission and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She danced for The Magpie Company and The Ex in Amsterdam. She's presented work at numerous festivals and teaches dance classes around the Triangle.

The idea for the SoundScape Movement Fest germinated during the SoundScape workshops Mastromichalis taught at A.C. Fitness and Wetlands Dance Hall. In those workshops, she invited bands and musicians (including Cold Sides, Boyzone, The Nein and Shark Quest) to provide a "sound environment"--which might be electronic noise or a live guitar and a squalling sax--and taught students how to react to both the sounds and the space they inhabited.

Those workshops culminated in a final showing where Mastromichalis got so much positive feedback about the adventurous and participatory nature of the event that, in June 2005, she decided to write a grant to organize a festival along the same lines. Mastromichalis envisions SoundScape as an alternative to the more mainstream American Dance Festival and as commensurate with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area's "experimental environment."

Each night of SoundScape will have its own loose theme. Night one is geared toward solo work and installations, with a solo piece by Choreo Collective choreographer Nancy Simpson Carter, the world-renowned performance artist Ivo Dimchev (the aforementioned Bulgarian), and Katherine Ferrier (she of the hoopskirt). The second night, though, is oriented around video and multimedia work, with Felt Battery (with the teepee) and A.M. Salad (tooling the tricked-out tape measure) taking over Local 506. Mastromichalis, Jenifer Padilla (SoundScape's graphic designer), Michal Osterweil (a SoundScape volunteer), and the musician Chuck Johnson will present "Available for Lease," a movement, music and video project concerned with the recovery of neglected public spaces. Saturday night's program, though, is more eclectic, featuring performers as diverse as Paperhand Puppet Intervention's Donovan Zimmerman and local noise provocateurs Boyzone. And of course, each night culminates with a DJ set and dance party of indeterminate ending time.

Besides the nightly performances, SoundScape will offer a range of production-oriented workshops in the daytime, designed to teach dancers "everything you need to know to put on a show." Festival performers will teach dance improvisation, Butoh, grant-writing, video production, turntablism, beat-making and screen-printing.

The premise--that active involvement, not passive consumption, is the impetus of art--is firmly aligned with Mastromichalis' heuristic ideals, which also resonate through her dedication (and by extension, the festival's) to transforming spaces, not just occupying them.

"When people think of dance, they think of an image being right in front of you," she explains. "But how would it be if the dancer were underneath a table? Or what if people were hanging down on strings? Right now we're in this space and it's fairly square shaped, but how would it change if I walked across the room or outside, but was still talking to you? Would we still be having a duet, or would it be your solo?"

The subtext, of course, is clear: Boundaries are valuable only insofar as they can be manipulated in the service of art.

For a complete schedule and up-to-date details, including ticket prices and links, visit www.soundscapefest.org, or check out the public service announcement at esotic.com/media/SoundscapePSA.mov.

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