Radical System Art nails loneliness in dance
White Bird regularly brings high quality contemporary ballet and dance troupes to Portland, but they outdid themselves recently with Radical System Art The Vancouver, B.C. outfit has long made dance-theater works that challenge the alienation baked into this corporate, mechanized and digitized world, on subjects like business success, self-help and extreme fitness. But RSA's newest piece, "Momentum of Isolation" was a stunning departure from modern dance norms.
Group founder and artistic director Shay Kuebler opened the show at PSU's Lincoln Hall, playing the office worker stuck with stamping and calculator tasks, with only his potted plant for company. Trained in capoeira and hip hop as well as more traditional modern dance moves, Kuebler bashed and crashed his way through the first scene, then journeyed "home" to watch an offstage TV. Elastic tethers pulled him forwards and backwards, as he clowned like a horizontal marionette. It was the audience's first taste of this "feeling-expressed-as-action" that went into overdrive when the other seven performers were on stage.
They slid soundlessly on socks across the polished stage, leaping and writhing, moving organically sometimes, at others in perfect, almost mechanical synch. One second, they looked like zombies in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, the next they formed a phalanx against one dancer, pushing them backwards to exclusion. Like a school of fish changing direction, they switched focus to another dancer, pushing them away instead, while always blending looseness with rigor.
In one scene, a female sat in a chair while five dancers sat in a circle of chairs in front of her. She swiped them left and right, as in a dating app. With perfect coordination, they jumped up, moved along one seat and resettled, all within less than a second. Sometimes she interacted with the person within reach — touching, making out, spurning — and sometimes swiped past them without a look. Back and forth they rotated, capturing the nervous energy of modern, menu-driven life, short attention spans, fear of missing out and generalized anxiety. All this, in a few, beautifully executed movements.
In dance-theater RSA always makes intelligent use of music, video, lighting, props and even a little speech. In one scene a male suitor presented himself to a seated woman. He approached her, moving to the sound of a love poem over the sound system. The poem would glitch and skip and restart, and the male dancer matched that frustration by falling to the ground then jerking himself back toward his chair, then starting his own movement toward her again. This went on for several minutes until the poem was finally spit out, complete but damaged.
The dancers used their facial expressions as much as regular stage actors. And there were puppets — not just the flower in a pot, but a headless mannikin, operated from behind by a man using rods. The puppet tried to dance with a woman, but she kept trying to get behind him to the human. It ended badly, of course, but there were some touching moments.
Alone again, naturally
Kuebler has called MOI "A show that explores ideas and topics on isolation that are caused by technology, society, ever-shifting values."
Sounds used included Sun Ra and Fela Kuti tunes, as well as the plangent Atomos X by A Winged Victory for the Sullen, "Always and Forever" by Heatwave and "Just the Two of Us" by Bill Withers. You have not heard a classic soul song messed with until you have heard these remixed versions, and seen RSA accompany them in spasms of pain and pleasure. The use of strobe lights added to the feeling that this was consciousness, in all its messiness (halting, decentered, repetitive), expressed in movement.
At times it was like a dance version of the TV show "Black Mirror." Some scenes had a comfy humor to them, until the familiar tropes decayed and turned dark. In one, a bobble-miked female (performer Tia Kushniruk) led her troupe like she was a spin class diva, her hair sticking to her face with sweat. Her self-motivational mantra, taken from the Pond Sage meme, included telling herself she was "unbothered, moisturized, happy, in my lane, focused, flourishing". But gradually her dancers became more out of synch, and threatening, until the leader herself seemed to crack up.
After the show Kushniruk explained the freedom they have. They know they have, say, six beats to get from A to B on stage, expressing certain feelings, but they can choose gestures and facial expressions they use, and even what words. Other recorded text played by the 'God Computer' was either poetry from Lana Del Rey or Rupi Kaur.
Comedian Bo Burnham's self-shot show 'Inside' triumphed in making lockdowns and failing mental health bearable with ironic humor. In a different vein, Kuebler nails the stress that comes with isolation, and remember, he started "MOI" in 2018, before the pandemic raised loneliness to the power N. He and his dancers did it in different ways. That desk flower in a pot made an appearance at the end, when it died and its ghost said it wanted to go home, like E.T. It was a pathetic scene in a night of angst, dark humor and other edgy emotions, but it underscored just how unnerving the rest of the show had been.
Let's hope White Bird brings Radical System Art back soon. Judging by how a huge portion of the audience stuck around to talk to each other at the end, Portland misses them already.
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