My expectations for Ancestral Voices were low. Dance is typically the riskiest of Fringe genres. The Festival prides itself on future Off-Broadway transfers playing alongside chintzy one-joke productions that will never again see the light of day. Serious dance companies wishing to disassociate themselves from a festival where fellow shows have titles like Sodomy & Pedicures or Rise Like a Penis from the Flames – A Phallic Phoenix Story are likely to skip the Fringe altogether for the slightly more prestigious New York Musical Theatre Festival in September. Indeed, just 11 shows of nearly 180 at this year’s Fringe fall under the genre of dance. This dearth is why it’s so exciting to report that Ancestral Voices is the festival’s second home run for dance. (The first was the Japanese hip-hop fusion of Orientarhythm.) Based on Ukrainian folk songs and poetry, the production is a consistently entertaining experience full of beautiful images. The serious nature of the production threatens to veer into bland ethnic presentation territory, but avoids this thanks to performer artistry, a quick-moving variety of scenes, and sincerity.
Several moments stand out as highlights. Erin Conway and Mark Tomasic perform a lovely courtship dance between a star and the moon. Tomasic later takes a solo in “The Fire of Kupalo,” a sequence full of enough tricks and passion to put to shame any of those angst-filled contemporary routines on So You Think You Can Dance. Other highlights include “Swim, Gentle Swan,” another gorgeous solo, performed by Catherine Meredith, and a full company number that wraps the stage in an intricate pattern of blue, yellow, and red ribbon. When the ribbons are gently pulled apart one by one after the dance, the effect is simple but striking.
Nadia Tarnawsky grounds the production as the onstage narrator spouting new age babble that probably would’ve sounded ridiculous coming out of someone else’s mouth. Indeed, the pre-recorded Ukrainian poetry that bookends most scenes, translated by Tarnawsky and performed by two voiceovers artists, does sound a little ridiculous. The reading of each poem lacks dynamics, making too much of it sound exactly the same. This is a disservice to the show’s otherwise excellent structure and choreography.