On Stage: Jil and Ben and Friends

JIL STIFEL WAYWARDLAND

You have to love the principle behind New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art (CSA) series: to provide financial and artistic support to Pittsburgh’s emerging artists. That gives them time to more fully develop their ideas and move on to the next level.

However, it didn’t seem like Jil Stifel, an independent dancer and choreographer, and Benjamin Sota, founding director of Zany Umbrella Circus, would fall into that category.

But Jil does mostly solo work and it’s been a long time since Benjamin has inserted his toe (and circus apparatus) into the whirlpool of Pittsburgh dance. This was an opportunity to expand their artistic vision — for Jil, eight artists to coordinate and for Ben, sharing in that and folding his unique talents into a choreographed endeavor.

The result was WaywardLand, a fresh performance piece with four dancers (Jil, Ben, the shimmering Anna Thompson and masterful Taylor Knight, sets and masks by Blaine Siegel, lighting design by Scott Nelson, costume design by Casey Droege and composition and sound design by David Bernabo.

I still remember Jil’s early work (a bathtub piece) and was always impressed with her startling imagination, so different, yet so much her own. And you can’t get much different than the Zany Umbrella Circus, which always brings its own pizazz with it.

The two have known each other since high school and maybe that made it easy to be themselves, yet integrate modern dance and circus arts. That they did surprisingly well.

There were assorted offbeat choreographic vignettes, like a playfulness with “wayward,” pointing quizzically in various directions. There was a jiggly jog, hands atop the head, slipping into flipper hands, as if “What’s up?”

But most movement and timing was determined by the props. That could make things purposeful, as when manipulating a long, twisted fabric rope, or meandering about with large papier mâché minotaur heads or peering from behind notched geometric forms.

The duo created triangles in the movement, perhaps inspired by a large hanger where Ben was slowly lifted in the sky. Maybe a little too slowly, stopping the action. My favorite was the German wheel, actually a double wheel, that became a corral and a circular balancing act for Jil and Ben.

But undoubtedly WaywardLand was a Seussian meeting of some of Pittsburgh’s most inventive, but decidedly adult artists, pointing, just like this piece, in all directions and wondrous for their unconventionality.

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