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PuSh festival


e-bodies in trouble

meg walker: 2009 push festival, vancouver


Ray Lee, Siren Ray Lee, Siren
courtesy the artist
A THROUGH-LINE ABOUT TECHNOLOGY-IMMERSED BODIES EMERGED AT THIS YEAR’S PUSH INTERNATIONAL PERFORMING ARTS FESTIVAL. TO EXPERIENCE SIREN, THE FESTIVAL’S OPENING SHOW, AUDIENCES WALKED AROUND A WAREHOUSE-SIZED ROOM FILLED WITH A CHOIR OF GIANT TRIPODS, LISTENING TO THE STEADY, SEDUCTIVE SOUNDS PRODUCED BY THE TRIPODS’ TWIRLING ARMS. BY CONTRAST, HIROAKI UMEDA’S DANCING BODY WAS ATTACKED BY VIDEO AND LIGHT PROJECTIONS, WHILE THE CHARACTERS IN TOSHIKI OKADA’S PLAY, FIVE DAYS IN MARCH, SEEMED NUMBED FROM LIVING IN THE HIGH-TECH DENSITY OF TOKYO. AND THE FESTIVAL’S CLOSING SHOW, LIVE FROM A BUSH OF GHOSTS, FEATURED A DANCER, TWO DJS AND LIVE-PROCESSED VIDEO PROJECTIONS TO SHAPE CHARACTERS WHO YIELD TOO MUCH POWER TO TECHNOLOGY.

The five-year-old PuSh Festival isn’t themed; it presents “groundbreaking work in the live performing arts.” But after I saw Bush of Ghosts, impressions from these four shows gelled. I thought: if performing arts reveal our obsessions, clearly we’re trying to understand our e-bodies.

ray lee, siren

In UK creator/performer Ray Lee’s hands, technology offers pleasurable extensions of the body. Siren is a large music installation. Thirty metal tripods, from about three to 13 feet high, balance thin horizontal metal arms bearing speakers and tiny red LED lights at each end. Lee and fellow performer Harry Dawes solemnly walk among the ‘creatures’ and turn them on, one at a time. The metal arms twirl steadily, each at a unique speed. Each produces a uniquely toned hum, forming a major fourth and building into a harmonious wall of sound. Spinning, singing, the tripods begin to feel intelligent; they certainly seduce.

When the floodlights snap off without warning, the red lights appear to float. We’re dreaming, awake on our feet. We were so gradually brought to a place of aural attunement that this blindness feels exquisite, not frightening. After a few too-short minutes, the floodlights return and the performers turn the tripods off in reverse order. The silence that follows is both full and hungry: my ears ears feel superbly sensitized, yet want more. A rush of wind sounds like rain against the brick building’s exterior, almost as beautiful as the Sirens had been. Almost.

hiroaki umeda

Choreographer-dancer Hiroaki Umeda (Tokyo) also luxuriates in the play between body and electronic environment, but his two dance works at PuSh explored the malicious side of machinery. While Going to a Condition and its companion work, Accumulated Layout, both present flesh at the mercy of electronically driven apparatus. As the first piece opens, clipped bursts of sound and light lash Umeda, but he stands completely still. By looking downward under a stark spotlight his face is blacked out. The bursts repeat, interspersed with clattering sounds that imply giant robotic cockroaches scrambling inside an electronic system.

Then skinny white lines project around Umeda’s compact stillness. They form sinister x-y axes that lock onto him as if a target of some unknown malevolent force. For the first half of While Going to a Condition, Umeda moves only his knees and his feet sway and twist, hip-hop moves under compression. When industrial engine sounds add aural pressure, Umeda responds with full-body gestures. The sounds climax in a three-minute barrage of strobe lights, until: light blares solid, the sound dissolves into electronic wisps, and the artist finally, finally, looks up—into the pale blue light. It’s impossible to know whether this is death or unification with the machine.

Umeda holds ground against another stark-white-light machine that wants to devour him in the next piece, Accumulated Layout. Seen together, the two works evoke dance-clubs where the entertainment systems have become vampiric. But Umeda’s universe is not campy, he’s engaged in a struggle for autonomous movement.

Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, Live from a Bush of Ghosts, Theatre Conspiracy Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, Live from a Bush of Ghosts, Theatre Conspiracy
photo Chris Randle
live from a bush of ghosts

Theatre Conspiracy (Vancouver) similarly strokes audiences with bursts of video and sound, but encapsulate flesh-versus-electronics tensions within short narrative dances. Live from a Bush of Ghosts was co-created by writer Tim Carlson, director Richard Wolfe, the two DJs in No Luck Club, video artist Candelario Andrade and dancer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.

Bush of Ghosts is an “open source” performance: the circular stage is backed by a half-circle of tables holding the gear used by No Luck Club and Andrade, who are themselves visible throughout the show. Friedenberg, known for her character-based semi-theatrical choreographies, remains in full view beside the stage as she switches costume between her seven roles. The video projections provide context in some scenes—stock exchange numbers flicker viciously over a desperate day-trader on his cell phone, for example—and in other scenes they are equal partners to the dance.

One of Carlson’s initial inspirations for Bush of Ghosts was Manufactured Landscapes, a film about photographer Edward Burtynsky (Jennifer Baichwal, 2006). The film showed devastating footage of poor workers in remote Chinese villages melting computer parts over fires to wrench off recyclable metals, poisoning their lungs and their water supplies in the process.

The first character in Bush of Ghosts is a Chinese peasant coughing herself to death over melting motherboards. Each of the seven characters is killed by some effect of technology, and yet the No Luck Club’s pulsing soundtrack is pleasurable. An electronically manipulated body is vulnerable, despite the promises of expansion and immortality. And it is also capable of delight, as two other characters—a rambunctious Jezebel and a once-famous gambler—fleetingly remind us.

chelfitsch Theatre Company, Five Days in March chelfitsch Theatre Company, Five Days in March
photo Thomas Bremond
five days in march

Moving from dance to theatre, Tokyo-based Toshiki Okada’s experimental Five Days in March is a (somewhat) narrative-driven play that takes place on a bare stage. It doesn’t overtly comment on tech-bodies, but I include it here because it made more sense to me after I connected it with the Umeda works and Live from a Bush of Ghosts.

The story sounds promisingly sensuous. Gen-Y hipsters Yukki and Minobe meet at a post-rock show in March 2003, just as the war in Iraq begins. They have sex in a love hotel for five days, never exchanging names or phone numbers. Meanwhile, an anti-war protest blocks the streets near the hotel. We don’t get to know much more than that. In fact, we receive an encapsulation of the plot within the first five minutes. From there, the seven actors tell the infatuation story in non-linear order through fragmented and repetitive conversations, sometimes swapping their roles.

The chelfitsch Theatre Company’s actors give total commitment to Okada’s direction. They inhabit a deliberately bizarre, and physically demanding, acting style without indicating that anything unusual is happening. Speaking or not, they move continuously. But their motions have no connection to their words or to each other’s presence. The restless gestures are usually slow and always repetitive. They range from dancelike hand movements to twitches that mimic the ways toddlers squirm when they are told to be still. The disjointed sensuality is both impressive and irritating to observe.

For a non-Japanese speaker reading surtitles, I can’t determine if the language is stilted. Yet it is clear enough that conversations emerge, and motivations do not. For example, the lovers wonder if the war will be over when they leave the hotel, but they’re too superficial for the question to be callous. I think Okada is after something beyond text and naturalistic acting. He strips away plot nuance, character exploration, complicated set and lighting. So what is left? Only these indecipherable, relentlessly casual movements.

Five Days in March interested me at the time, but it felt opaque and only became accessible in the context of the other works I’d experienced. Okada’s characters are in their bodies but their bodies are blank. I start to question if the sex happened or whether the play’s circular conversations are nothing more than text messages or blog postings (one character does blog about wishing to live on Mars). Without physical and emotional knowledge, what happens to bodies? I wonder if Okada is exploring the dissociative state that technological immersion can bring—obliquely, through childlike bodies too uninformed to know their own curiosity.

The PuSh Festival of course included performances about many other impulses and emotions. But when I return my Blackberry to my pocket after emailing this review, I will think further about the fairly thin line between a technology-inflected and a technology-infected body. Thankfully, the artists at the PuSh Festival didn’t offer answers; they offered ways to think about what kinds of technological infestation we might embrace, and why.


Siren, creator, deviser, performer Ray Lee, performer Harry Dawes, producer Simon Chatterton, Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre, Jan 20-24, www.invisible-forces.com; chelfitsch Theatre Company, Five Days in March, writer, director Toshiki Okada, Performance Works, Jan 21-24; Hiroaki Umeda, while going to a condition; Accumulated Layout, choreographer, dancer Hiroaki Umeda, sound, visual creation, production S20, Scotiabank Dance Centre, Jan 22-24; Theatre Conspiracy, Live from a Bush of Ghosts, director Richard Wolfe, co-creators Tim Carlson, Richard Wolfe, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, No Luck Club, Candelario Andrade, design Andreas Kahre, lighting Jeff Harrison, Studio 16, Feb 4–15, www.conspiracy.ca

For more on PuSh see page 39 for Nanay: A Testimonial Play and Assembly and page 5 for Ronnie Burkett’s Billie Twinkle.

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 4

© Meg Walker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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