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Royal Frog Ballet Throws a Rural Cabaret


Published September 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

Royal Frog Ballet 2016 - COURTESY OF CANDACE HOP
  • Courtesy Of Candace Hop
  • Royal Frog Ballet 2016

A rhizome is a type of root that spreads horizontally, sending out fresh tendrils and stems from its network of nodes. It's an apt metaphor for the roving Royal Frog Ballet, a loose group of friends and artists who have gathered annually since 2008 to perform their "Surrealist Cabaret" against bucolic backdrops.

For the second year in a row, Fable Farm in Barnard is partnering with the troupe to offer evening shows at its Feast & Field Market, along with a farm-grown meal, in the last weekend of September. Each year's cabaret is organized around an abstract concept. This year's theme: "at the root."

With deliberate emphasis on flexible self-definition, the RFB evades clean-cut descriptions. Generally, the cabaret features a series of vignettes in different locations; audiences can expect to be led by costumed "grannies" through presentations of dance, poetry, visual and theatrical storytelling, and sculptures large and small.

Similar to Marianne Lust's Lincoln-based Night Fires, and in keeping with their rural staging, RFB performances frequently explore seasonal and environmental threads. Past themes include "All Things Fall" and "Muck." The group's website describes it as "a special blend of conceptual, cheeky, ritualistic folk art."

Thetford native Sophie Wood founded RFB with friends and collaborators Sarah Blackwell and Matt Lorenz. (Lorenz is better known by his musician moniker the Suitcase Junket.) Reached by phone, Wood explained that the Ballet — which is by no means a traditional ballet — came into being when a coterie of friends and recent graduates, many of them from Hampshire College, were working and living together in a big communal house in Amherst, Mass.. "We were all much more excited about inviting people to each other's art showings than our own," she recalled.

So the group banded together in creative moral support to offer, as RFB's website says, "an open studio for performance artists to show works-in-progress." And thus the first cabaret, "Chicken With Moon," was born. It debuted in October 2008 at the Old Friends Farm in Amherst and featured an estimated 10 artists and performers. Their initial offerings included a danced version of the lunar cycle, a singing man in the moon, and performance work inspired by the Japanese dance-theater butoh.

"We weren't trying to start an artist collective," Wood said. Yet over the past decade, RFB has expanded to include more than 30 performers, then contracted back to nearly its original size. This year's event features 13 artists.

Among them is Molly Greene, a visual artist and doctoral student in American studies at Yale University. Greene, who grew up in Cornwall, met Wood while they were both teaching at the Vermont Governor's Institute on the Arts. This will be her sixth year with RFB. Speaking by phone, Greene said she preferred not to reveal the details of her work this year but allowed that it will involve large paintings and fabric sculpture worn as costume. (One of Greene's headpieces from a 2014 cabaret is currently on view as part of the exhibit "Interpose" at Burlington's New City Galerie.)

"[The cabaret is] this alternate reality where you have a group of people that trust each other, and you can make the most preposterous things materialize, in a field," Greene said. Her dissertation will be a collection of visual stories. "I don't think [that] would've happened if I hadn't been a part of this group," she said.

In addition to fostering collaborative experimentation among artists, Wood said, one of the overarching goals of the cabaret is "to give people an excuse to go outside with a bunch of strangers and to make them look at that landscape differently."

The choice of outdoor venue, however, is not solely about trying to foster a conscious connection to nature. "Another reality and truth about why we perform outside is that it's much cheaper," Wood said. "There's not as much red tape and bullshit involved."

Having a less expensive stage contributes to the overall sustainability of the company's work. "I feel pretty strongly about artists and farmers getting paid for the work that they do," Wood said. "Over the years, we've really worked to make [the show] affordable and accessible."

When purchasing tickets online, visitors have the option of buying a reduced-rate ticket ($10 instead of $18 for an adult) and making a contribution to "buy tickets for the community."

RFB aims, Wood said, "to make people feel alive and included, and also to make them think." In service of this mission, she added, "We balance conceptual and heavy themes with a lot of glitter and corny jokes."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Royal Frog Ballet Straddles Absurd and Mundane in a Rural Cabaret"

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