Thursday, September 22, 2016

Digital Folk at SFU Woodward's

I have been following the evolution of plastic orchid factory's Digital Folk for the past three years: first as initial concept showing during the company's residency at the Cultch in 2014; then as an adapted micro-performance at the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island in 2015; and finally as a test run of version 3.0 last month at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby (you can check out past writing on the piece here, here, and here). Now the show arrives, in all its immersive glory, at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, where it opened last night, welcoming members of the paying public for the first time. During its long gestative journey (the metaphor seems appropriate given that two core collaborators on the show are now pregnant), Digital Folk has never lost sight of some key ideas it wished to probe through the research and creation process: how interactive media technologies have fundamentally altered patterns (cognitive and kinetic/physical) of group socialization; and how to transfer and interrupt such patterns within a live performance environment.

The first idea plays out through a proliferation of mirroring techniques in the piece. There are, for example, the myriad screens with which performers and spectators interact: the television monitors that play the Xbox dance and music games with which we are invited to interface, mimicking the grooves of various cross-species avatars; the larger screens upon which the record of these efforts is sometimes streamed; even the screens of performers' smart phones, which they take out at one point in order to attempt a hilarious real-time reenactment of a group folk dance posted to YouTube. But Digital Folk complicates this particular feedback loop of connectivity by including other kinds of mirroring, including that which takes place all the time in a studio between dancers practicing their technique or learning new choreography. At various points throughout the piece, one performer will begin following another, attempting to reproduce the other's improvised movement as their partner wends this way or that way throughout the space; after a while, however, it becomes difficult to tell who is following whom. Then there is the outstretched palm used to start up the video games that in one powerful moment of stillness magically becomes a gestural hail to all the performers. Mirroring is also transferred to the grain of the voice, with the deliberately awful vocal mimicry of The Sally Field Project house band to classic tunes called up through software memory contrasting with the virtuosic display of human memory as Jane Osborne and James Gnam take turns echoing each other during a shared recitation and riff on a scientific article dealing with perceptual and spatial recall. The event of the echo, a vocal delay, returns sound to one altered, changed, so that the singular voice becomes double, something also neatly captured in this performance through the polyphonic--and polyglot--telling of a folk tale in multiple languages by Natalie LeFebvre Gnam, Diego Romero, Shion Carter, and Vanessa Goodman.

In Digital Folk the audience becomes a fundamental part of the tale being told. Invited to don various bits of costume as we enter the performance space--an immersive installation built within the Wong Theatre--we are then free to roam about the wonderful set designed by Natalie Purschwitz and lit by James Proudfoot, taking a seat on the stacked blocks in the centre, lying down on a bit of indoor-outdoor carpet, joining the performers and fellow audience members in a group dance to one of the videos, or just standing and watching in the corner. And while there are certainly moments in the piece--for example, at the end when Romero and Bevin Poole Leinweber perform a duet of David Bowie's Starman on the ukulele--where the audience is prompted to adopt the spectating habits of a traditional proscenium setting, becoming silent and still and directionally attentive, what struck me in this version of the show is how much I wanted to participate: twice getting up to shake it, shake it alongside Goodman and Lexi Vajda and others to different dance videos; and accepting without hesitation a slow dance to Freebird with fellow audience member Walter. And it is in these unscripted--or rather, unprogrammed--bodily encounters that Digital Folk as a live performance interrupts the one-way circuitry of human-computer interaction. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in that space of free play that occurs between the end of one nightly iteration of the performance and the start of another. To explain: Digital Folk, which is about an hour long, runs on a loop at 7, 8 and 9 pm over the course of an evening. Audience members are free to come in and out and to stay for as long as they like. While Richard and I, having both had long days, chose to leave after an hour, in ceding our show garments to new arrivals we were able to pass on a bit of recently acquired folk wisdom about how to be with others in this truly amazing performance space.

It has been fascinating to watch the development of Digital Folk. Just in the month since its penultimate test run at the Shadbolt the piece has undergone a superb edit in both content and form--though I do wish The Sally Field Project were still ethnomusicologists from the future. Transitions between different bits have tightened and all the performers have become freer and looser in improvising with the always shifting rules of this particular game. This includes the student interns from SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, who in a unique arrangement facilitated through SFU Woodward's Cultural Programs (a co-presenting partner on the show) have gained valuable artistic experience through this project. Carter, Kayla DeVos, Rachel Helten, Hannah Jackson and Rachel Silver have all proven their chops alongside the more seasoned professional performers mentioned above. That three of them also got to see their former professor lamely execute a familiar repertoire of pop choreography (pelvic thrusts and finger points included) is something I'm more than happy to live with.

Digital Folk continues tonight through Sunday. I highly recommend checking it out. It's the first great dance party of the fall.


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