Sunday, August 14, 2016

Digital Folk 3.0 at the Shadbolt

Yesterday, on perhaps the single best day we've had so far all summer, I hiked it out to the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts for a beta test of the latest version of plastic orchid factory's Digital Folk. I've been following the various incarnations of the performance, which began with a residency at the Cultch in 2014 (and which I wrote about here), and which continued with a presentation as part of Boca del Lupo's Micro Performance Series at the Anderson Street Space in October of last year (more on that here). For the past three weeks plastic orchid's James Gnam and Natalie LeFebvre Gnam, together with their collaborators, have been refining the work at the Shadbolt in advance of the piece's premiere at SFU Woodward's at the end of next month (September 21-25 in the Wong Theatre, to be precise).

Digital Folk has evolved into a fully immersive experience that combines video game design, a bit of cosplay, music and dance, and an interactive installation. The main conceptual and scenographic advance in this version of the piece is that pol has built a set that places the audience in the middle of the action, and my understanding is that for the Woodward's performances the hour-long show will play on a loop, with spectators invited to come and go as they please. The cast of performers has also gotten bigger, with pol having engaged several members of the School for the Contemporary Arts' Dance program (three of them my former students) as interns. However, the core of the piece remains concerned with how we interact, cognitively and kinaesthetically, with myriad screen avatars, and how this in turn affects and/or disrupts our live bodily engagements with others. This conceit plays out in various instances of mirroring, including a few new ones for this version: I was particularly taken by the synchronized smartphone folk dance, and also by the virtuoso vocal call and response sequence shared by James Gnam and Jane Osborne. That all these screens are in turn mediating audience response is strikingly evidenced by how passive we generally were yesterday. After the first few minutes of dress-up and exploration of the site and its different play stations, most of us took up a fixed standing or sitting position and watched the action unfold around us. It's true, there is a group dance at the end; however, I wonder the extent to which more (or perhaps less) participation will be encouraged in the final version.

There is much more I could say, including all the different explorations of folk stories and folk dance in the piece--to say nothing of those bumbling musical folklorists from the future, The Sally Field Project. But I think I'll save further discussion for the September performances.

It's going to be fun.


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