wild animals . august by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

Well, it would be fair to say everything changed today. We held a "beta" run, and experienced the show with a small audience. It was chaotic, surprising, frail, and rich, with pure and beautiful moments. In James’ words, this show is more of a wild animal than a house pet.

Most surprising for me was how human the show felt. The audience members in the space with us were three-dimensional, active, decisive bodies. They were not the passive audience found in a proscenium theatre, which are just rows and rows of faces from the perspective of the stage. They were really there, (embodied), making decisions of where to stand or sit, playing the games, and getting involved.

After the show we gathered as a cast and laughed about all the things that went wrong, or unexpectedly went right. Since the dancing happens in the same space as the audience, sometimes audience members would be sitting or standing exactly where the dance usually occurs. So we danced around people, above and beside people. They became objects to navigate but also potential dance partners.

“It was really of our time,” said one woman after the show as we chatted about which parts stood out to her. She said watching us stare at our smart phones and dance was particularly moving. This sight is so familiar, but takes on new meaning in performance. 

After the show I think about how much care and thought has been put into this show, by James and Natalie and all of us. Yet it has the energetic, casual exterior of a party or a rock show. In that way it is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In the performance we mention concepts of mirroring and digital “folk culture.” We show connection and disconnection between bodies, cognition, and responsiveness. We blur lines between individual and social dance, memory and imagination. The richness and density is palpable, just under the surface. The audience will be the ones to peel back the layers.

 

the cozy cottage . august by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

It’s Wednesday, and I’m fighting fatigue. This residency feels like a marathon, but every day we are back at it, making new stuff and making old stuff better.

We start with our warm-up, which turns into the group dance known as the “cozy cottage”. This lasts for quite some time, and when it finally finishes, there is a sense of peaceful exploration about us. James observes that there is a dilating and expanding focus in this dance: we start internally, but once the duet has established itself, it can break out into the space and expand, interacting with other duets. He explains, “at the moment where the fault lines blend, it opens up”.

Again, we acknowledge that the cozy cottage dance is very human and intimate. The most powerful moment is simply seeing and being seen, before we start really moving. Once you establish that narrow focus with your partner, it feels safe. James says the gaze really characterizes the dance. He stresses that this dance needs to live in our imagination, rather than our nervous system like the fast-twitch basketball dance.

We talk about finding the dance that is already there between you and your partner. This is similar to what Michelangelo said about sculpting, that every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. In the cozy cottage, the dance between you and your partner already exists, filled with your decisions and interests. You just need to tease it out.

For a while we work on another dance called “dancing alone together”. This is an improvised dance that uses memory of the games as a stimulus to create material. It is tiring, and my memory doesn’t always cooperate. But it is brilliant the way the mind brings back movement: never chronological, always surprising.

We stumble upon a new section this afternoon in the most serendipitous way. Six of us begin playing Just Dance to get some more information in our bodies to be available for improvisation. Gathered around on the platform and the floor, we throw ourselves into a silly chick hip-hop dance. But across the room, I suddenly see that James and Natalie are watching. One look at James’ face, I knew immediately what he was thinking: that “this is a thing” and will need to be in the show.

transitions . august by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver
 

Today was fun. There were carefree moments: lots of rubbing Bevin’s pregnant belly, making jokes, and laughing together. It feels good to have a complete cast now that Lexi has joined us. Slowly roles are getting assigned in certain sections. Other members of the group (other than Vanessa and James and Bevon) are beginning to learn the videography cues and sound cues.

“Ifolk” in a circle does not get less dizzying the more we rehearse it, unfortunately. It’s a feeling you have to embrace, like the butterflies in your stomach when you are on a roller coaster. With the lights and the music, bass pumping in my chest, I always feel as though I might be sick, or fall over. Even thinking about it, the vertigo fills my body.

We worked out some important transitions today. Our "tiny" solo dance progresses into duets, which use mass and imagination to move around the space. As we dance in pairs, we become aware of the landscape that the group is creating, and respond to each other to produce asymmetry, hills, corners, and clumps. After a time, this dance stops abruptly when we each check in with our phones, pulling them out of various stashed locations on our person. This transition is comical from the inside, because it feels like a dismissal of your dancing partner (“This has been fun, but now it’s time to check my emails”).

We also learn that we need to be comfortable with different proximities from our partner, because there will be audience members all through the space when we perform. It is thrilling and also nerve-wracking to not be able to anticipate the conditions of the performance, and to have no control over what the audience will do. 

Later in the day we don the colourful video-game costumes hanging around in the space. The costumes, I must say, certainly “leveled up” our rehearsal (James' words). The atmosphere became even more fantastical and delightfully wacky. At one point James was giving us instructions but was completely unable to focus. He just burst into laughter and told us how awesome we looked.

We leave singing “Free Bird” which it feels has become the anthem of our entire show. 

the process . august by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

It feels a bit strange that today is Sunday. Since our residency is twelve days straight, days of the week have lost significance. It could just as easily be Monday or Thursday. 

Today we started with a curated warm-up. James talked us through a series of tasks which we execute for around 25 minutes. It involves a “tiny dance” on our own that evolves into a mirrored duet with a partner, then becomes a group dance responding and adjusting to each other, and descends back into duets. When all of this is finished, we are warm and loose, and James decides this is our new warm-up. He is satisfied with many of the moments that occurred around the space; the tasks created what he deemed “an estuary of creative activity”.

Next we moved into the “stampede” dance that we found yesterday. Slowly, things are beginning to have a lineage or a structure in the work. Certain parts naturally follow each other, and the energy shifts seem to dictate what we do next. The start of this section has eight dancers on a small square patch of grass, named (and I missed why) “the grassy knoll”. When the dance starts, there are only minor shifts in weight and pelvises. 

Slowly we begin to share weight through hands, arms, and pelvises. We are like one organism, buttressing our limbs into space while attached to each other. When someone touches you, there is a moment where you can say “yes” and give them weight, or “no” and not respond. When we are in this weight-hand-supporting dance, the shifts in other bodies affect us and dictate the next shift. This sounds complex, but really it is simple. It is a matter of proposing connections with other bodies, and responding to propositions. 

the games . august by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver
 

Today we experiment with an “Ifolk” dance. Staring at our phones for choreography, we attempt to recreate folk dancing in real time. Overnight Vanessa has modified the film to half speed, which makes copying physically impossible. We decide “what the dance is” is really the dizzy, off-balance, impossible sensation of the task. After several runs I begin to feel like I am dangling on the edge of a cliff, hanging on to my phone and trying not to slip. Nausea is in the air.

When I stand out to watch, I realize there is a certain facial expression that occurs when one dances with a smartphone. The face becomes fixated and strangely absent, as if the mind and body are detached. Dancers kick their feet and step side to side, spinning in silly circles, all the while their heads are lit up by the blue light of our phone screens, decapitated.

Later in the afternoon we spent time with rock band and Just Dance.  As I watch Diego, Jane, Rachel and Hannah play Rock Band, a kind of performative flair takes over their bodies. Four people are gathered around, captivated by a small screen. Their bodies move slightly with inconsistent jerks and sways, but the driving force of the music is coming from the game, rather than from inside the performers.

We finish by “dancing alone together”. After experiencing the games, we improvise with the memory of the movements and sensations from the games. These things are readily available in our bodies and in our consciousness. James tells us this dance necessarily involves “distilling” these moves down to two or three moves or sensations, so that we can fully explore their potential. 

glorious chaos . august by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

We are getting used to this crazy environment. Today we divide and conquer. Several dancers work on a trio section called “Triforce” while others work out a gestural phrase based on narratives in the games. At the same time, three dancers test their skills at rock band. A sense of glorious chaos invades the space.

At one point Smells Like Teen Spirit is blaring from one side of the room, James Proudfoot’s lights are shifting between red and blue, Natalie Gnam is standing on top of the temple performing gestural movements, and smoke is billowing around in the spotlights. It truly feels like a party. When moments of synchronicity occur between the three groups, the whole room buzzes.  

I was part of the “Triforce” team for most of the day. We dance and talk, dance and talk. We reflect that the intentions of the dancers are always visible, whether it is taking cues from the game or from other bodies. The clarity of movement changes as it goes through the line of dancers, like a game of telephone. When the three dancers move into unison it is deliciously satisfying to watch. They “flock” or stay spatially similar, rotating and attempting “sameness”. 

Something that kept coming up today is the importance of having full body awareness. When you are dancing in a duet or in a large group, every pore of your body needs to have eyes. When your partner is behind you or out of gaze, your imagination and intuition kick in to anticipate (and do) what they are doing. 

adaptation . august by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

We have begun our residency at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts. In this labyrinth of a building there are doors everywhere, leading to different rooms and corridors or fire exits. We will occupy a black-box space called the studio theatre for the next twelve days.

We are eight dancers today. The interns mix in with the rest of the cast including Vanessa Goodman, Jane Osborne, Bevin Poole Leinweber and Diego Romero (Lexi Vajda will join us next week). Many of these dancers have been invested in the project for years. As we warm up, Natalie Purschwitz puts final touches on the set, taping down squares of flooring and hanging fabric on the walls.

In these early stages, we are adapting to our new environment and learning to navigate the objects around us as we dance. Purschwitz has created a set that fuses the digital and the tangible world through imagination. The cubes and textures framing the space make it feel like we are caught somewhere between a screen and a hard drive, where our moving bodies are pixelated and undefined.

We’re working with mirroring again: departing from sameness and matching impulses. In four duets we move around the space like a rolling, twisting, morphing being. The constructed space and the changing lights formalize these exercises.

James Proudfoot has been experimenting with colours, strengths, and sources for light as we work. He has a quiet and bold presence, in gentle yet firm command of the light spilling around the room.

There are moments today where it felt like things worked. James Gnam will stop us and say, “That feels like it’s a thing.” We take mental notes. 

memory . july by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

Today it is a shame to be inside - the sun is blazing with just the right amount of wind. In the studio we warm up as usual, mobilizing our joints with special attention on the pelvis. 

Memory and imagination have a large role in our dancing today. We return to the duets, attempting to recreate perceived sensations and tracking our partner’s body. Starting this dance slowly is important to establish a base for when we speed it up. The fast version is becoming known as the “basketball” dance. It feels like sprinting.

After dancing with a partner, we create solos “remembering” the sensations and movements of the duet. This is very cerebral work. It feels like you are dancing with a ghost. Just like a dream, certain moments emerge in my memory as I dance, and it is rarely chronological.

We do this exact same process with the video games. After flailing, punching, and hip-swaying in front of the screen to pumping pop music, we improvise solos in silence with remembered movements. Rather than just recreating what happened, we pick certain gestures and explore what they were, what they are now, and what they could be. Finally, there is room for our own desires to creep in, and the moves can be what we want them to be. In a way we have liberated ourselves from the games.

Our rehearsal descends into a fantastic conversation about social dance and digital influences. The dance video games seem to be filling a social need that people have to dance together, but they also alienate us. I leave rehearsal with my mind whirring.

the games . july by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

We interns have our first experience with the dance video games. “Just Dance” fills the large studio with popular songs and we take turns imitating its dancing avatars on the television screen. It is difficult, and there is a lot of laughter, with a slight edge of competition.

The game tracks your body and gives you a score at the end of each song. Within these parameters, sameness is the only goal, and there is no room for imagination or desire. As dance artists, this is stifling.

In these two-dimensional games, there is only reaction, anxiety and impulse. There is no comparison to our movement work in the studio this week, where we have discovered the possibilities of mirroring and reaction in real space and in real time with another dancer. With another body, there are infinite options. We can honour the other dancer’s intention, and create our own. We can transform it, filter it through our own desires, and add to it. With the games, there are no decisions, just reactions.

tasking . july by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

Dance, discuss, dance, discuss. The answer is hanging somewhere in the balance, waiting to be snatched.

Task by task, a movement language is being built in our bodies. With it we will be able to express, respond, and take ourselves somewhere we haven’t been before. Mirroring duets occur all over the studio, all at once or two at a time, with the others watching. We are grasping at something - somewhere between sameness and difference, there is a common language. We decide to “co-author” the movement rather than simply lead or follow. When there is no leader, we are always deciding, adjusting and responding.

Natalie points out that there is a difference between energy and sensation. Energy is like a gage or a meter - it can be turned up or down - but sensation has more possibilities. Two dancers can embody the same sensation with different levels of energy. Light bulbs go off everywhere.

We agree that “the goal for repurposing is more important than the goal for sameness.” We must take the opportunity to take something in a new direction. It is important to honour the other’s movement, but also honour our own desires and impulses.

first contacts . july by james gnam

Written by Rachel Silver

 

The history of Digital Folk is several years of questioning, experimentation and performance. Natalie and James have tested out their ideas in large and small spaces, in performance, through residencies, and in academia.

What does it mean to have a generation whose first contact with “folk” culture (ie. singing, dancing, and telling stories with others) is in the digital realm, through video games? How does this affect their ability to connect, to communicate, and to make music or dance in three-dimensional reality?

There are five interns including myself, and a week to get caught up with three years of the project. Our studio at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts unfortunately has no windows, so on our lunch break we make sure to get some July sun.

In the studio we spend hours improvising with prompts from James. Mirroring another dancer is difficult when there is no leader. The gaze became a large part of it; if you can’t see your partner, how can you mirror them? James introduces the idea of staying “in-between” movements without ever fully arriving, and keeping your body from the necessity of being vertical by hanging in space. This is very difficult, but finally we are getting somewhere.

James has us doing “the pelvis dance,” tracking our partner around the space. Our pelvises must remain distally together, and together in momentum, though our bodies may be in different positions. We wear sneakers, because this work feels a bit like basketball, challenging each other to keep up. It is extremely tiring for our legs, and we take breaks to watch each other. At the end of the day, we have nearly achieved something. James says, “it feels like we are flirting with close” to where we need to go. After a long and physical rehearsal, we take this as success.