Saturday, October 24, 2015

Digital Folk 2.0

A year ago Richard and I attended a showing of plastic orchid factory's work-in-progress, Digital Folk, at the Cultch; I wrote about that experience here (as well as, subsequently, in an issue of the journal Canadian Theatre Review). Last night we headed to the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island for latest iteration of the piece, which we might call the "house party" version.

As Digital Folk centres around our kinetic experience--as players and spectators--of immersive dance-based video games, plastic orchid's Artistic Director, James Gnam, always knew that he wanted to find a way to incorporate direct audience participation into the piece. The Anderson Street Space's intimate confines certainly encourage interaction, and both while we were waiting for all the invited guests to arrive, and during the show itself, there was ample opportunity to take one's turn at what is essentially a movement-based version of karaoke. Except with the dance videos it's a competition, and you're scored--which can be an intimidating proposition given that you're learning the choreography on the spot and that you're playing alongside professional dancers. Nevertheless, I was happy to give the game a whirl several times over the course of the evening, shimmying and grooving and funking alongside returning DFers Natalie LeFebvre Gnam, Dario Dinuzzi, Bevin Poole, and Lexi Vajda. I also took a turn playing bass on the Queen/David Bowie song "Under Pressure" as part of the house band that accompanies--often in a radically juxtapositional manner--the video dance sequences.

Afterwards, there was a lot of discussion among the creative team and the invited audience of the relationship between the participatory sequences and the more obviously presentational sections of the piece, which included a storytelling frame riffing on The Legend of Zelda video game; a group cell phone dance (complete with selfies); three different takes on the relationship between language and gesture; and a transfixing bit of mirroring in which Vajda and LeFebvre Gnam attempt to mimic the moves of Poole, who is herself following a virtual avatar on the screen. For some, the obvious role we are cast into in the dance games, and the clear build to an outcome (winning or losing), threw into relief those moments when we retreated to the riser and chairs set up along one wall and watched the events as "traditional" spectators. However, I didn't mind this back and forth in modalities. If in part this work is functioning as a danced ethnography of the folkways of "digital natives," then it makes sense to me to thematize as part of the staging ethnography's classic methodology of participant-observation.

More interesting to me was how the space necessarily changes the scale and the feel of the show. At the Cultch, there were screens on the walls, which broadcast the dancers' interactions with the video games they were playing. At the Anderson Street Space, there was only a single monitor, positioned to face the raised dance platform, but also visible to half of the audience depending on where they were positioned. As Ziyian Kwan noted in the post-show discussion, for those positioned near it, the screen necessarily draws one's attention, in part because digital media operate under the principle of the serial absorption of information (e.g. hours spent surfing the net or playing video games or bingeing on Netflix). But here's the key: the live dancing body's attempt to mimic what the virtual body is doing on screen is an analogue response; it is a relaying of information using signals that are continuously variable in terms of physicality, spatial position, intensity, etc.

And that haptic dissonance between what and how we are seeing and feeling in this piece is what makes it so endlessly fascinating to me. I look forward to the next iteration.


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