I give credit to Chutzpah! Artistic Managing Director Mary-Louise Albert for wanting to shake things up a bit, moving the opening of this year's festival from its traditional anchor venue at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre at Granville and 41st to the Red Room Bar, downtown on Richards Street. There Maria Kong's Backstage is receiving its North American premiere this weekend, with two more performances today.
Founded seven years ago by former Batsheva company members, the Tel Aviv based Maria Kong combines dance, music and visual effects to create what it calls "live movement experiences." As is the case with Backstage, these experiences are often immersive and, indeed, upon entering the bar last night we were told by one of the hostesses that we should feel free to wander around the space during the performance. What we weren't told was how strictly our movements would be controlled.
The show begins suddenly with a lone troubadour singing and playing his guitar on the edge of the stage, where a full band will later set up. As the crowds fill the dance floor in front of him and rush to attach a body to the voice, another man wearing tuxedo tails starts weaving through the masses waving his arms and directing traffic, encouraging people to sit down on the floor so that everyone can see. Fair enough--standing audience right, near one of the space's three bars, I didn't mind having my sightlines improved as I listened to ballads about pirates and life at sea. However, when the singer introduces three dancing sirens and points them out, shimmying behind and to the left of the audience, near the bar's entrance, the crowd's natural impulse to move towards them is forestalled by our gentlemanly traffic cop, whose constant pacing and silent but insistent gestural adjustment of spectating levels is so distracting that I hardly pay attention to the trio of dancers.
Next, our gaze returns to its opening proscenium orientation as the full rock band comes on stage, accompanied by our mistress of ceremonies, the "Shadow Lady." She purrs into the microphone about the journey we are about to take and then introduces the two other main players in the evening's proceedings, a pair of muscled male dancers clad in tight-fitting post-apocalyptic gladiator gear, as if they are escapees from one of the Mad Max movies. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, these two mostly strut about like rival cocks on the walk, at one point even engaging in a simulated boxing match overseen by the Shadow Lady as ringmaster.
The plot of the piece doesn't much matter. Mostly the work is composed of discreet episodes that are sited in different parts of the bar. Many of these are movement-based, but the choreography is not especially memorable, and I paid far more attention to the costumes than the dancers' footwork. There are also two video sequences, projected onto a screen opposite the stage. I gave up trying to follow the accompanying narration as, again, I became frustrated with being told where and how to stand. Indeed, for the last half of the piece I retreated to the table at the back of the room where Richard had remained stationed from the beginning. From there we only caught occasional glimpses of the movement. But we could hear the music just fine--which is the best part of the piece.
I get that if only for the safety of the dancers an element of control over the audience's proximity has to be exerted. I object, however, when that control comes to dominate one's experience of the performance. That's when immersion turns into coercion.