PIFA's 'Tape Riot' is surprising, confusing, and unexpected

A passerby walks past as tape artist Hervé Thiot (kneeling) puts tape on a wall next to dancers Adaya Berkovich, left, and Laura Keil during a performance of "Tape Riot" in Society Hill on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. "Tape Riot," a performance by members of the artistic group Asphalt Piloten, is part of this year's Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.

Watching a Tape Riot performance makes you feel as if you’re in an alternate universe, with its electronic soundscapes, impassive dancers, and “tape artist,” who is in charge of creating shapes and lines on sidewalks and buildings with a roll of masking tape.

I certainly did on Tuesday afternoon, when I attended Asphalt Piloten’s first performance of Tape Riot, a show that began at Delancey Park in Society Hill and wound its way across streets and walls, even through a parking garage on Lombard Street, between Second and Third. Why were the dancers, a collective of international artists, pressing their faces against the curb? Don’t they know that that’s probably the grossest thing you can do in Philadelphia? Are the pieces of tape supposed to mimic our surroundings? Why does none of this make sense?

Tape Riot, which was being performed in the United States for the first time as part of this week’s Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, is supposed to break boundaries and make its audience members see spaces in new ways. The dancers eagerly embraced their roles as disruptors, at one point lying down in the middle of the parking garage. The security guard on duty had no idea what to do as dozens of people crowded around the dancers, eventually deciding that the best course of action was to go back to work and pretend that everything was normal.

“We do a lot of improvisation,” Anders Ehlin, the musician in the quartet, said. “We remove the fourth wall and engage with the surrounding architecture and environment.”

Each performance in Philadelphia will feature different locations, which are revealed to audience members a day before it takes place. Ehlin said that at the beginning of the one I attended, he recorded the noises at the park and incorporated them into the electronic soundscapes.

“There are certain rules that guide the structure of the show,” he said. “But we use what’s going on to kind of shape the scenes.”

There was something undoubtedly fascinating about the unexpectedness of the show. Eventually my anxiety about the germs the dancers were exposing themselves to by rolling around on Philly streets disappeared and I found myself enjoying the reactions of confused passersby. Suddenly immersed in a piece of art, most people stuck around to figure out what was going on. A group of boys even stopped their basketball game to watch the dancers twitch against a brick wall as the tape artist created a striking image of lines and shapes around their bodies. An angry biker cursed at the artists when they took over a bike lane as the rest of us craned our necks, trying to see past a SEPTA bus.

Whether you walk out of the performance confused or enlightened, one thing is for sure: Tape Riot will surprise you with its unconventionality. It didn’t make me think differently about the streets of Philadelphia, but it did lead me to question my ideas of boundaries in art. Maybe the idea of a boundary is a boundary in and of itself.

Tape Riot. Additional performances at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, $20 general admission. For more information, including location of the performance, call 215-790-5800 or go to kimmelcenter.org.