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Rochester City Ballet gives new season a test run, Thank You Kiss returns at Fringe 

After more than two years of COVID, few artistic mediums have had a rougher time getting back on their feet than ballet. All of that huffing and puffing and close contact, as someone plunges a knife into someone else’s back.

“I got all verklempt today because I was watching artists being born,” Robert Gardner, artistic director of Rochester City Ballet, said after Saturday’s Rochester Fringe Festival performance at the School of the Arts: Allen Main Stage Theatre. Two of his six dancers are new to the ensemble, which has had a rough time navigating the pandemic. “It’s slow building the audience back,” Gardner admitted.

There is no other path for the company. Ballet returns, one foot in front of the other. Since COVID, there have been only a handful of shows. The holiday tradition of “The Nutcracker” with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was performed by the company in masks. Gardner looks at these Rochester Fringe shows — Rochester City Ballet returns 3:30 p.m. Sunday at School of the Arts — as a test run for Rochester City Ballet’s new season, which begins next month.
click to enlarge Florrie Geller and Ryo Munakata in Rochester City Ballet's "Swan Lake." - PHOTO BY MATT BURKHARTT
  • PHOTO BY MATT BURKHARTT
  • Florrie Geller and Ryo Munakata in Rochester City Ballet's "Swan Lake."
“Rochester City Ballet Presents: Turn of the Screw and Other Terrifying Tales” is a ballet starter kit, cramming excerpts from two famous ballets into one Fringe hour. “The Black Swan Pas de Deux” is pulled from “Swan Lake,” with some impressive en pointe work from Florrie Geller as the seductress Odile; clearly her calf muscles haven’t atrophied over this pandemic.

Getting more stage time was “The Turn of the Screw,” an opportunity for the six-dancer ensemble to show that, even over this slack period for the arts, their bodies have maintained the low fat content levels of a wood theater seat armrest.
click to enlarge Katherine Duffy and Samanatha Howe in "Turn of the Screw." - PHOTO BY MATT BURKHARTT
  • PHOTO BY MATT BURKHARTT
  • Katherine Duffy and Samanatha Howe in "Turn of the Screw."
Are these really terrifying tales? This is not “Halloween: Chainsaw Allegro.” The haunting is far more subtle in this Salvatore Aiello ballet, based on the 1898 Henry James ghost story and the Benjamin Britten opera it inspired. True, the dancers were dropping to the floor at an alarming pace. But ballet is an art of suggestion. Dance, Gardner said, “is universal, you don’t have to know the language. You feel the emotion.”

Although Alexander Griffith, as the ghost of the manservant Quint, did cut loose with a hearty “Bru-ha-ha-ha-ha,” the universal language of evil at work.

These characters created by James include a return to the dead by malevolent spirits. And the excerpts were chosen by Gardner for their universal appeal of darkness.

“It’s in all of us,” he said, “isn’t it?”

A Thank You Kiss for Richard Marx

Twelve dollars for a glass of wine in a plastic cup at the new Focus Theater in the Sibley Building? “Thank You Kiss Presents: Slippery Slopes” had better be worth it.

That’s all subjective, of course. But yes, “Thank You Kiss” is worth the wine, and the $15 ticket. I’ve been seeing a lot of comedy at Rochester Fringe this year, perhaps because 2022 has been such a dismal slice of history, and some laughs seem in order. And this was the funniest and most inventive of the shows thus far.

Of course, COVID, COVID, COVID has been no help. It’s been about three years since we’ve seen a performance by the Thank You Kiss quartet of Marc D’Amico, John Forrest Thompson, Beth Winslow, and Megan Mack. Mack is a producer on the WXXI-AM (1370) weekday talk show “Connections with Evan Dawson,” but I was not aware that she is particularly funny, which meant her presence in the same building where I work had no bearing on this review.

Thank You Kiss is sketch comedy, sometimes in the briefest manner. When the joke’s over, this group moves on. A piece about an angsty squirrel trying to time its dash across a street against traffic is just that. Thank You Kiss finds no reason to speculate on the outcome.

Like the great comedy institutions of years past (Monty Python, Firesign Theater, your office Christmas party), Thank You Kiss delights in turning things upside down. Sometimes the joke is not the point, it’s just a detail. As when a father suspects his kids are on drugs because some of his own weed is missing. Sometimes the joke is an inexplicable sight gag. As in scavenger birds picking on a Shakespearean-spouting actor.

Kodak and Nick Tahou’s earn brief mentions. But the group was particularly venomous when it came to a 1980s MTV icon. In a test of pop-culture I.Q., I can’t believe that of the three people I was with that night, I was the only one who knew who Richard Marx is. Or was. A big 1980s MTV presence, Thank You Kiss roasted the guy who’s sold 30 million albums. And through the magic of video, Marx roasted Thank You Kiss right back.

Thank You Kiss even tosses in a few of its own videos. A mock commercial for a fragrance called “Bipartisan,” for people “who believe in something, even if you believe in nothing.”

And, working out anger-management issues, Mack went on a killing spree, knocking off her fellow comedians. (I have never personally witnessed this malevolent behavior in Mack, but we work on separate floors in the WXXI office.)

Thank You Kiss returns to Fringe action on Sept. 23 and 24.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at (585) 258-0343 or jspevak@wxxi.org.
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