"How do we negotiate the space that exists between us?” Dance collective Pones poses this question in its 2020 Fringe production, Proximity, which sees 18 dancers take to the streets of Cincinnati in a free-flowing study in movement at arm’s length.
Pones’ dancers — wearing no face masks — skirt the edges of social distance, often bumping up against the boundaries of acceptable proximity but never quite exceeding them. The feeling that the performers might, just this one time, brush hands or lean against one another adds a visceral feel. However, Proximity is not obsessed with loneliness; the choreography (a seven-member collaboration) is free, not confined, and often incredibly joyful.
From the empty playgrounds of Ziegler Park to the abandoned parking lots at The Banks, Pones borrows dozens of public spaces to use as backdrops. The dancers spend most of their time outdoors, artfully positioned in front of street artist Swoon’s wheat pastes or scaling the Art Climb staircase in Eden Park at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Unexpecting passersby in masks give the dancers a wide berth.
Photographer Ian Timothy Forsgren follows the dancers from a healthy distance, but keeps the intimacy alive through interesting angles and changes in perspective; for instance, he stalks one performer along a bridge, then follows that performer’s gaze down to the ground below where an ensemble is dancing. Forsgren has a keen eye, always careful to capture visual information outside of the dance itself — the Taft Theatre’s “Stay Safe, Stay Healthy” marquee, for instance, or the word “Alone” in spray paint on an underpass wall. (Forsgren also edits, occasionally slowing a moment or superimposing the dancers, but he ultimately keeps the focus on the movement.)
For the majority of Proximity’s 45 minutes, the sounds of birdsong and gentle music (Chihei Hatakeyama, Shawn Elsbernd) leave us room to quietly reflect on what Proximity might be telling us. In the final third, spoken word poetry by Jyreika Guest codifies things. “I get it. The silence, the uncertainty. It all feels — it seems to swell more. Hurts, deeper.” Guest’s words anchor Proximity to this moment in time, referencing the virus and also her hopes for the future. “This won’t — this can’t — be like it was.”
Proximity is the time capsule I have been waiting for, the 2020 Fringe performance that reflects and engages with the times we are currently living through. It is a show that I hope both in- and out-of-town audiences take a chance on, because Proximity makes a snapshot of what it feels like not just to experience isolation, but to experience it here, in Eden Park or near the Roebling Suspension Bridge or in front of Great American Ball Park. At a time when making art is difficult, Pones pulls it off, even scouting a bright, blue sky under which to dance together.
The 17th annual all-digital Cincinnati Fringe Festival runs through June 13. Get tickets and show info at cincyfringe.com.