Imaginations run wild in Pivot Arts' return to live

Imagine a better post-pandemic world.

That was the request of artists presented in this year’s edition of the Pivot Arts Festival. Since 2013, this vibrant, multi-arts festival has capitalized on Edgewater’s ripe performance possibilities (and sometimes Uptown and Rogers Park, too). Forced to go digital last year, Pivot Arts gleefully returned to a hybrid format for 2021, offering a mix of live performance, installations and an online gallery.

An anchor point of this year’s festival, which concludes June 6, is the “Reimagining Utopia” tour. In groups of 15 at a time, guests are guided between three spaces flanking the intersection of Broadway and Catalpa, starting in The Edge Off Broadway and navigating the bowels of The Edge Theater’s various spaces before travelling to Color Circles Studio for the 90-minute tour’s finale.

I attended on Sunday afternoon; it was that weird weather day that started out hot and steamy, then dropped 20 degrees as a cold front blew through town. Like the temps, the “Reimagining Utopia” tour varies wildly as you move from space to space. These particular artists imagine very different post-pandemic worlds.

And that variability, captured in six gumptious, inventive vignettes, is the real beauty of this festival. The tour begins seated on tree stumps (set six feet apart, of course), with a projected video of various trees and flowers running on a loop. Flanking the video are four long strips of butcher paper, hung like wings for one of the three presentations taking place in a more conventional theater space. On the paper, are hand-drawn images of two enormous hands, one on each side, and two more abstract images that reminded me of sea coral. Get there early enough, and your eyes have time to wander through animator Nefertiti Abdulmalik’s smaller sketches, taped on the black cinderblock walls of the tiny black box.

By the time the house lights over our stumps dimmed, I was in full euphoria, drawn-in by Abdulmalik’s captivating animations blending various flora with images of the Earth, a cup of coffee, a human head cracked open with tendrils of foliage trailing out like a chia pet. Collectively, the installation is titled “Portal to New Earth.” Abdulmalik (whose artistic moniker is SolAR*), with support from assistant animator and environment artist Rachele Jackson, takes a hopeful approach to the festival’s prompt, aiming for peace and, perhaps, a newly restored natural environment that has benefitted from some of us being forced to push pause during the pandemic.

After a trip through the alley, we arrived in a concrete box backstage from The Edge’s main theater space for “State(d),” by the artist collective Propelled Animals. Again, we encounter nods toward nature, that gray box transformed by a transfixing art installation blending a variety of natural elements. On the floor, rich, dark soil is coiffed within a perfect rectangle, bordered by battery operated candles. At the center, a smaller patch of what looks like snow forms a projection surface for a dizzying film. Above the snow, a variety of tree branches hide the projector. From my vantage point, it was tricky to glean much from the video, which bombards the viewer with quick moving images and soundbites. The one that stuck with me was a clear flashback to the insurrection at the Capital. Surely Propelled Animals is not imagining this as part of our future? Then again, an honest assessment of the present and near past is pre-requisite for a better future.

In the Edge’s auditorium, Jessi Realzola performs a one-woman anthem on the female essences of justice and freedom in the world premiere of Christin Eve Cato’s play, “A Woman’s Armor,” followed by two meditative pieces by Danielle Ross and Ishti Dance.

“How do we notice?” is Ross’ query, as she sits atop the Edge’s lobby bar and narrates the history of the theater before it was a theater. Her subtle playfulness extends the performance into the vestibule and onto the sidewalk; pedestrian choreography plays in the physical and metaphysical liminal spaces—she is neither “dancing” nor “walking,” joined by Tuli Bera and Ali Lorenz like a delicate flash mob as we glimpse them through the lobby’s large glass windows.

Bera then transitions to her main task on the tour, as partner to Kinnari Vora in Ishti Collective’s “Prana.” The audience encircles Bera and Vora, who focus much of their attention on a tiered offering bowl filled with twinkling battery candles. Their golden light, and that of six lanterns hung above stage, cast a warm glow on the dancers’ slow-moving, ooey-gooey movement meditations combining recognizable mudras with contemporary interpretations on Indian dance.

Across the street at Color Circle Studios, Maggie Kubley and Minnie Productions give a hilarious, titillating finale called “Come Over,” Kubley’s solo play on the perils of pandemic dating. Too soon? Not at all, in this case. Kubley captures a nuanced complexity in her character that scratches this concert’s itch for a climax. Think Bridget Jones, 2021 edition.

As more live performance comes bubbling back to life, it’s worth mentioning that this experience feels completely safe and responsible. Organized, pragmatic docents guide the tour and manage expectations throughout about seating arrangements and accessibility moving from space to space. As far as stagecraft goes, though, it’s kind of a mess, giving the whole thing a DIY, open-mic vibe that works against many of these pieces. Post-pandemic worlds are bound to be imperfect, after all.


The Pivot Arts Festival continues through June 6. Events take place throughout the Edgewater neighborhood, in addition to several online presentations. Tickets for the Performance Tour are $15-$30, available by clicking the event page below.