Out Innerspace's ambitious new full-length work of dance-theatre, Major Motion Picture, had its official premiere this past January at Dance Victoria. Now Vancouver audiences get to see the piece through this Saturday as it launches the Firehall Arts Centre's 2016/17 season of dance programming.
As their title suggests, Out Innerspace's David Raymond and Tiffany Tregarthen have drawn inspiration from film history, with various noir, spaghetti western, and martial arts motifs, among others, referenced in the choreography. Indeed, one of the many pleasures of watching this piece comes from revelling in how the movement, both in more rapid moments of horizontal seriality and in slower and sometimes static group massings out of which different bodies appear (and, just as ominously, into which others disappear), approaches the kinetic equivalent of cinematic montage. The terrific physicality of all the performers--Raymond and Tregarthen, joined by Laura Avery, Ralph Escamillan, Elissa Hanson, Arash Khakpour, Renée Sigoun and apprentice Elya Grant (all graduates of OIS's pre-professional training program, Modus Operandi)--is a reminder that for film theorists like Gilles Deleuze the "movement-image" of cinema is fundamentally rooted in the gestural vocabulary of dance. To this end, Deleuze references Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire, and there are arguably homages to both of these men's film oeuvres in MMP, not least in the funny and romantic closing "duet" that Tregarthen performs with a giant overcoat.
However, that overcoat is mostly worn throughout the piece by three other bodies, whose feet and arms we see moving in striking coordination, but whose collective torso remains headless. This overlord figure seems to preside over some dystopic future in which two different bands of comrades--one group all in black who appear to have mostly been cowed into reactive subservience by the system in which they find themselves, the other clad in white patterned onesies and balaclavas, who seem to incarnate a more anarchic impulse toward disrupting and even overthrowing that system--are set against each other. For some reason all of this put me in mind of Pink Floyd's The Wall, with the headless overcoated figure a version of the sadistic headmaster who grinds the students into meat, and with that film's aesthetic mix of live action and animation also translating into this work's unique juxtaposition of super sped-up and almost stop-motion choreography. The work is also filled with multiple moments of the dancers running on stage, doing double takes, occasionally crashing into or grappling with each other, and then dashing back into the wings--which suggested to me those sequences from Saturday morning cartoons when Scooby and Shaggy and Thelma and all the others keep running in and out of doorways and hallways, every now and then meeting up in the middle, but no one really knowing whom they might be chasing or fleeing, and why.
There is in fact a wall in this piece. It very prominently fills the downstage space at the top of the show, but is slowly pulled upstage during the spoken word prologue, in which Sigouin (I think) recites a mantra of "This is for you" into a stand-up mic stage right. (Now that I think of it, there are shades of Pink Floyd's "Hey You" lyrics in that opening interpellative direct address, and Sigouin at the mic at the top of the show portends Khakpour's later heavy breathing solo with an old-style hand-held mic later on, all of which brings to mind the Bob Geldof character ranting into a microphone in The Wall...) The wall is subsequently transformed into a screen, onto which the piece's stunning video designs are projected. This includes images of the performers--and also the audience--that are captured live via a light and motion-sensitive and radio frequency transmitting mobile camera hung from the stage left lighting grid. Seeking out different dancers' bodies crouched and cowering in the wings--including in one eerie moment the figure of Hanson looking at what I took to be a representation of her character's younger self on a cell phone--the camera is the real controlling mechanism in this hyper-mediated world, suggesting in turn that in our contemporary surveillance culture we may no longer have any real autonomy over any of our movements.
For all of these instances of revelation, I was left thinking that MMP never quite gelled into the sum of its parts. There were moments of amazing physical artistry--from the collective arraying of bodies and arms into a scary talking monster (whose image later returns on screen) and an amazing shaking solo by Raymond, to high impact partnering and richly organic segues into very satisfying bits of group unison. And yet, taken together, these moments felt inchoate in terms of the larger story being told: are the black and white groups at war with each other, or two different but equally oppressed groups; is the overcoated overlord figure defeated in the end and, if so, why the playfully romantic dance with Tregarthen that concludes the piece? All of which is to say that while I was definitely aware that some sort of narrative was being constructed in the piece (something I'm all for in contemporary dance-theatre and what generally attracts me to the work of Out Innerspace), I couldn't figure out how that narrative cohered. I'm not saying that I need meaning laid out for me or some kind of closure; but I do need an organizational logic. I also crave an emotional investment, which in this case was also lacking. I was definitely awed several times last night, but I can't say that I was genuinely moved.