Lee Thompson is one of nine women who climb silks and hang from trapezes in “In Transit,” created by Chestnut Hiller Lauren Rile Smith’s company, Tangle Movement Arts, Philadelphia’s aerial storytellers. (Photo by Michael Ermilio)

by Len Lear

Tangle Movement Arts, Philadelphia’s aerial storytellers, founded by Chestnut Hill native, Lauren Rile Smith, 32, will present “In Transit,” a new circus-theater show that explores the ordinary and extraordinary moments found on public transportation. Nine women climb silks and hang from trapezes as subway rides and bus stops become a platform for aerial dance and intimate moments between strangers. Mixing live music, acrobatic movement and theatrical magic, In Transit premieres at Old City’s Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., on Sept. 4-7.

(“In Transit” is part of the 2019 Fringe Festival, presented by FringeArts, a three-week performing arts celebration taking over Philadelphia Sept. 4-21 and boasting hundreds of performances by local, national and international artists.)

Tangle’s all-female cast swings, balances and flies above the daily grind and remarkable surprises of our routine paths. In Transit travels through unexpected connections, quick changes and private lives colliding in public spaces as Tangle’s acrobats transcend the daily commute to find love, frustration and missing umbrellas.

“Wind, rain or sun, we gather at the bus stop,” Smith told us last week. “The transit commute can be a democratizing force. It collects people from different backgrounds, heading to different destinations, but we all move at the same speed when we are on the bus together. We wanted to investigate what it means to exist collectively in our trips across public space.”

Tangle Movement Arts’ performances mix traditional circus like trapeze and acrobatics with dance, theater and live music to tell a multi-dimensional story. Tangle’s work reflects individuals of diverse identities, “with an emphasis on queer and female experiences” (according to Rile) and is devised collaboratively by its all-female ensemble. Tangle has been a Philly FringeArts Festival favorite since its inception in 2011. Philadelphia Weekly wrote that Tangle “blends circus-style acrobatics with a smart theatrical spin.”

Smith, who was once an intern at the Chestnut Hill Local, graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in English literature and philosophy. After graduation, she made a somewhat unlikely transition and enrolled at the Germantown-based Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

“When I started training,” she recalled, “I was inspired by the blend of athleticism, narrative and physical artistry in contemporary circus arts.” Smith subsequently undertook further training at two circus schools in Brooklyn.

For several years, Smith has worked at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania. She is the rare materials assistant in the Special Collections Library, which means that she helps process rare books and manuscripts as they come into the collections.

“It allows me to switch gears,” she said, “between the head-centered world of books and libraries and the body-centered world of training circus arts. I chose the name Tangle for our acrobatic performance company because we are all about the possibilities that arise when things get complicated. Tangle also evokes the shapes of bodies you might see onstage when we perform.”

In a previous Fringe Festival performance by Tangle, Smith was asked to explain their performance briefly to an 8-year-old.

Her reply: “Seven women get together for a party on aerial silks, trapeze and other circus equipment. We’re going to climb the furniture, carry each other around and make new enemies and friends.”

At the time one of the performers in Tangle was seven months pregnant during the show.

“Let me tell you,” Smith said. “Trapeze is really hard, and it’s even harder when you’re doing pull-ups for two! Tangle is all about diverse expressions of female strength, so I love it.”

In one of Tangle’s shows, “The Girl’s Guide to Neighborly Conduct,” when a new neighbor moves into the rowhouse next door, six longtime housemates spark with conflict, romance, trapeze duets and the need for a very modern etiquette manual. Tangle’s innovative acrobats swing from trapezes, cartwheel across the dinner table and lift each other out of trouble in the show.

In Transit premieres on Wednesday Sept. 4, 8 p.m.; Thursday, Sept. 5, 8 p.m.; Friday, Sept. 6, 8 p.m., and Saturday Sept. 7, 3 and 8 p.m. Tickets are available via Tangle-Arts.com, or they can be purchased at the door.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com