A tangible silence hung in the dark void in the third-floor theater of the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts on Feb. 19 as about 30 people gathered around a large mat of paper covered in dirt and pieces of trash, watching — spellbound — as two dancers writhed around in the mess, the only noises the sound of clumps of dirt hitting the floor, the crinkle of plastic bags and their heavy breathing. It was a dance performance so intense, so bizarre, it could only be happening here at the Ruby Slipper Fringe Festival.
Intimate performances and envelope-pushing art abound at Ruby Slipper Fringe in Winston-Salem, which runs through Feb. 28. The festival features mostly local female artists from disciplines spanning poetry, fine arts, dance, storytelling, theater and more, showing new or in-development works in 90-minute slots, each followed by an “artist talkback,” in which the audience is invited to offer feedback to nurture the process.
Women’s voices are underrepresented in the arts, co-founder Cara Hagan said when explaining the purpose of a female-only indie showcase. The festival amplifies those voices, and also allows amateur artists to perform to an audience differing from the usual theatergoing crowd in the Triad. Amy da Luz, the other co-founder, said, “We were tired of just doing theater for theater people, just dance for dance people.”
Pulling that off was no small administrative feat. The amount of names in the program — almost 70 separate works are listed, and some pieces involve multiple performers — speaks to the organizational moxie of da Luz and Hagan.
“I’ve got 8,000 emails in my inbox right now,” da Luz said, laughing. She said that she and Hagan began talking about an inclusive environment for female artists in the fall of 2015, and it “just kinda happened” in a matter of a few months.
“We had no idea what would happen,” da Luz said. The lineup is unabashedly funkier than typically found in the Triad, but that hasn’t deterred audiences. “We’ve had a full house both nights,” da Luz said. “It makes me want to weep.”
Paper Lantern Theatre Company, which da Luz founded, is the official sponsor of the festival, which is supported by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. Each artist submitted a grant proposal for their piece.
It would be interesting to read the grant proposal for “adam-mah” by Karola Lüttringhaus of the Alban Elved Dance Company from Winston-Salem, which combined dance with audience interaction and a surprising amount of dirt.
“Well, it’s a Karola piece,” Hagan said. “You’re not going to see a Karola piece where she doesn’t go all in.”
“Adam-mah,” — a play-on-words of the Genesis story in the Bible and the Hebrew word “adamah” meaning “earth” — was an intimate and invasive performance, where almost every audience member was given a participatory role. One participant was even picked up and lifted off the ground in a bear hug, testing the boundaries between performer and audience.
Though in process, touring works like “adam-mah” are well-suited to this kind of space, the main purpose of Ruby Slipper Fringe is in giving a voice to first-time performers, Hagan said.
“We’re inviting women who hadn’t felt like they had a space,” she said, adding, “My mom is performing!”
Sarah Jenkins, one of the artist managers, said the festival dismantles false ideas that the arts are elaborate and reserved for only an elite few.
“Here, people are given such free rein,” she said. “It’s a safer place.”
On Feb. 19, the poetry and storytelling showcase featured a diverse lineup, including a Native-American heritage piece, a poem on food, grief and beliefs, a hilarious tale of airplane misadventure from a former Piedmont Airlines flight attendant and a multimedia piece involving clowning about a Cuban immigrant learning her way around American culture.
“This is my first time ever doing spoken word,” Charlene Hunt said during the artist feedback portion. “My story’s always been in here,” she said, gesturing to her chest. Her confession drew applause from the packed house.
Before the festival, local poet Julie Kolischak’s homage to her Quaker and Baptist grandmothers had yet to be shared with anyone.
“I’ve had lots of work on the shelf, and being able to share it is part of the process of writing,” she said.
With a TED talk entitled “The Empowerment of the Feminine Spirit,” a dance piece called “Why It Gotta Be Black” and excepts from “The Honey Sutra,” all on Ruby Slipper’s lineup for this upcoming weekend, relatively unknown female artists promise to carry the energy of the festival to its final performance on Sunday.
“I don’t ever take it for granted [that] someone took a chance on me, back when I first started acting,” da Luz said. “This is my way of giving back.”
Experience Ruby Slipper Fringe at the Milton Rhodes Arts Center in downtown Winston-Salem beginning at 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, and beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The festival is free. Visit rubyslipperfringe.org for the full schedule.