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Don't Look Up: The Rotunda Turns 100

You might think that a 1,500-pound chandelier dropped, straight and clean, from the dome of The Rotunda. But there it sits in the middle of the room, just one of many myths surrounding this historic University City landmark. This week, The Rotunda kicks off its 100th anniversary with a major new performance by Ann-Marie Mulgrew and Dancers Company, which celebrates its own quarter-century milestone. "Le Dada Va Gaga Dans 2011" is the site-specific piece Mulgrew choreographed as a dual honor: 100 years of The Rotunda and 25 years as a dance troupe. The event is also part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. The Rotunda's centenary gathering, with its community oriented, inclusive nature, is exemplary of the performing arts center's mission.

"We're working with Anne-Marie Mulgrew to literally move audiences throughout our majestic space during a series of a dozen highly innovative and whimsical vignettes," says The Rotunda's director, Gina Renzi, who has been involved with the landmark for 11 years, serving in her current capacity since 2003.

Dance Especially Made for The Rotunda
Mulgrew explains that Le Dada, in the planning for two years, was inspired by the Paris in the 1900s theme of PIFA, creating a crazy title to accompany an offbeat and edgy performance piece that incorporates video, installation and audience participation. While dance is essentially a visual medium. Mulgrew says that for the first time, her inspiration came from visual artists like Duchamp, rather than dancers. And she points to the century-old building itself as inspiration, with its massive 80-foot diameter domed ceiling, that chandelier sitting right in the center of the rarely used sanctuary, architectural details and peeling grandeur. The piece will be performed in natural light; sunset, says Mulgrew, is at 7:58.

"The work is site specific," says Mulgrew of Le Dada. "We start outside with a procession, stilt walkers and movement tableaus." The idea is to catch the eye of the general public by what Mulgrew terms wild and wacky costumes involving long blue coats and hats loosely inspired by the design of the Eiffel Tower. Mulgrew is taking a calculated risk with the piece, which winds its way around the whole building. In rehearsal, there is no audience to lead, and Mulgrew wonders what the piece will be like with the added flow of people, moving between the pews and the chandelier, taking a tour through the former Christian Science church.

An Event Factory
The Rotunda hosts about 300 public events each year, primarily in the smaller black box space in the rear of the complex. The theater gets booked far in advance with an unrivaled range of events, switching gears each night to offer hip hop, rock, jazz, independent film, lectures, plays and poetry.

Renzi is the sole full time employee of the public/private venture funded by The University of Pennsylvania as well as private donors. There is also a volunteer Board. "Penn bought the building in 1996," says Renzi. The Rotunda is part of the University of Pennsylvania Facilities and Real Estate Services Arts Portfolio (FRES ARTS). At first, the facility was used as a student rehearsal space, and in 1999 students staged the first event under the aegis of The Foundation Community Arts Initiative. Renzi says there is some misunderstanding about who owns the building. "You don't walk in and see the Penn logo. You don't even see the room set up in a way that you would on campus." She feels that people have come to accept The Rotunda as a place that's run by the community and fostered by the school.

This programming model and relationship with a higher education institute is one Renzi has not seen anywhere else in the country. She says it all started with Penn students and faculty in an urban studies seminar who were seeking ways to get students off campus and interact with West Philly neighbors. The students reached out to partner with West Philly artists, including Renzi. Not long after, Renzi was hired by the university as the full time director. "Penn students haven't had the experiences in the city that I have, and I have to remember that, and encourage them to want to get off campus to come to 40th street and meet people."

Grassroots Approach Works
Renzi has done such a great job of publicizing The Rotunda through word of mouth that she often speaks to community groups. She recalls one recent talk with middle aged visual artists who wanted to know how to get young people to come to their openings.

"Involve them," counseled Renzi. "Find ways you can collaborate. For us, that's how it's worked. Every year, it's a challenge I think about, to make sure we have Penn and other college students coming here. The way it's worked is to get some key students involved, and then they bring their contacts."

Renzi says that the first step "is identifying leaders in communities, because they tend to bring their people. Not too long ago, I hosted a breakfast for block captains in the neighborhood. It was mostly grandmas, people who'd never been here before. At least 10 percent were asking, how do I use this venue, and bring my grandkids?" These were people, says Renzi, who were familiar with the Rotunda, but had never before set foot inside.

The Rotunda hosts a handful of recurring events but is also open to a lot of different genres and people. If someone proposes an event, Renzi asks questions about logistics and promotion, and if there is a gap in knowledge, she will try to link them up with another group with more experience. "We are flexible and we are also inexpensive," says Renzi, who generally asks for one to two hundred dollars to host a ticketed event, and will make arrangements for a donation or trade on events that are free to the public.

Tickets for Le Dada va Gaga are reasonably priced at $10 to 15, and include a cake and conversation reception afterward. Mulgrew says the unusual start time, 7:11 p.m. for evening shows and 3:11 p.m. for the matinees, is whimsical, but adds that theatergoers should arrive on the hour because the first eleven minutes take place outside. Once the audience is led through the sanctuary, Mulgrew says dancers will try to invite people to sit down by talking to them.

Gina Renzi is looking forward to the one year celebration of 100 years of The Rotunda. "Ann-Marie's piece is the kickoff. We're not doing an extravaganza." Instead, says Renzi, they'll name a number of events over the course of the year that highlight what The Rotunda is already doing so well.

SUE SPOLAN is Innovation & Job News editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.


Anne-Marie Mulgrew

Gina Renzi, director of The Rotunda in the Sanctuary

Interior  of The Rotunda, celebrating its 100th birthday

Mulgrew's sculptural head dress

Exterior of The Rotunda

Mulgrew uses the space for her performance

All photographs by JEFF FUSCO

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