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31 by Kaeja d'Dance ('TouchX' and 'I am the Child of')

Performed at Harbourfront Centre

Drew Berry

Guest reviewer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator

I haven’t been to a modern dance performance in a very long time. This art form reminds me of the power of storytelling through its seemingly free-form and apparently improvised movement. Modern media technology has been seamlessly infused into many live performances with both exhilarating and thought-provoking results. Kaeja d’Dance’s double world premiere of two original modern dances, “Touch X” and “I am the Child of…” elevates the art but the technology does little to enhance it.

As part of Harbourfront Centre’s Torque International Contemporary Dance Series 2022, Toronto-based Kaeja d’Dance celebrates 31 years with the premiere of two new, original works by Artistic Directors Allen and Karen Kaeja. Presented in their own acts, Karen’s “Touch X” and Allen’s “I am the Child of…” investigate the complexity of our lived experiences, sense of community, perspective, human resiliency, and fragility, performed with deep emotion and expression by a cadre of uber-talented dance artists. On these levels, both pieces delivered.

The problem was the layering of the interactive augmented reality technology on Allen’s piece which, although intended to generate evocative worlds, only served to confuse, frustrate and distract to the point that it was ultimately abandoned by the audience. Overall, I couldn’t see the purpose of this “experiment”.

I marvel at modern dance. Tracing its roots back to the late 19th century as a protest against interpretive dance traditions of the time, it presents a highly expressive style that challenges the structured technique of classical ballet with a focus on expression, not specific postures. Ironically, despite it seeming devoid of traditional technique, a dancer needs to be highly skilled in traditional technique to dance it successfully. Each performer showed clear evidence of this skill and artistry.

In Act One, “TouchX” reveals a billowing curtain of plastic packing material hanging upstage. We see human forms in seated and standing positions under a canopy of similar translucent packing sheets. Much of the choreography in this 40-minute performance happens under this fine membrane which is ultimately whisked away but returns repeatedly in the form of props, clothing, backdrops and metaphysical wraiths. Tinfoil and plastic wrap are also incorporated into the storytelling as allegorical depictions of the trials and tribulations of our human existence. Thanks to the amalgam of creatives Karen Kaeja and Sonja Rainey, I’ve never witnessed such creative use of packing and wrapping materials in a dance performance.

The cast of eight wonderful artists (Michael Caldwell, Brayden Cairns, Nickeisha Garrick, Jessica Germano, David Norsworthy, Mio Sakamoto, Yui Ugai, Irma Villafuerte) are each given their moments to shine in solo and duet, supplemented by 30 members of “everyday community folk”, inhabited their stories of experiencing the presence and absence of touch. A complex world of fantasy and connection. Special mention to the wonderful duet work and soloists Irma Villafuerte, Nickeshia Garrick and Mio Sakamoto for their respective bellicose, guttural and elegant depictions of humanity in turmoil and rebirth.

Choreographer Karen’s inspired staging makes full use of the studio theatre with its balconies and side entrances. It’s not a large space but when 30-plus community members joined the core cast for their own intricate movements, it never felt crowded or cramped. Costumes by Sonja Rainey reminded me of casual summer attire - simple capris, sleeveless shirts, and shorts all in muted colours. Kudos to an incredibly effective lighting design by Simon Rossiter. His use of moving, patterned gobos, projected squares on the stage and side lights created both ethereal images of freedom and hard edges of confinement. A fabulous, original score by composer Gregory Harrison heightened the mood with his eclectic mix of up-tempo, drums, hard-hitting and pastoral instrumentation with chilling choral refrains from the community members. A celebration of the creativity of artists and technicians alike. Bravo!

Act 2 presented us with another wonderfully choreographed original work, a collaboration between Kaeja Dance and Vertical City Performance, “I am the Child of…”co-directed by Allen Kaeja and Bruce Barton. Another profound modern interpretation accentuating and embodying personal childhood memories performed by an enormously talented young cast of dancers (Michael Caldwell, Rodney Diverlus, Aria Evans, Nickeshia Garrick, Karen Kaeja, Ethan Kim, Geanderson Mello, Mio Sakamoto). This was an exploration about what shaped these performers in their formative years. Appropriate juvenile costuming was provided by Cara Johnson, mood-enhancing lighting again provided by Simon Rossiter and an evocative original score and vocal recordings by Edgardo Moreno.

This dance had a twist. It added interactive augmented reality technology and multiple cameras (cast members acting as camera operators holding their smartphones on stage) to create different perspectives and perceptions in a work that, according to co-director Kaeja, “creates an unpredictable experience within every performance”. Unpredictable indeed.

At intermission, lobby ushers with iPads provided a QR code we scanned with our smartphones or tablets. This divided the screen into quadrants, each providing different camera angles tied in via Wi-Fi to the phones being used by various cast members during the performance. At selected moments, we could add “virtual” cast members to the screen, joining the live cast members in ghostly composite (Augmented Reality and Digital Content provided by Toasterlab – Ian Garrett, Justine Garrett, Andrew Sempre, Raechel Kula).

For me, this just didn’t work – in concept and execution. Was this live theatre or live TV? Watching various camera angles and adding virtual cast members on my phone while simultaneously watching a live performance on the stage seemed counter intuitive. Too much fussing with my phone kept me from enjoying the benefits of both mediums. Insurmountable technical issues (poor Wi-Fi connection, frozen screens, links not working) made this experiment an exercise in frustration and confusion.

Ten minutes into the performance the audience realized they were so busy trying to figure it all that they were missing the dance. Phones disappeared into pockets and purses for what was left of the 30-minute performance.

Even without the technical issues, I can’t help but ask, why?

The concept of adding pre-recorded video elements and other media to a live performance is nothing new but this seemed to put a TV production unit with camera angles and greenscreen effects into the hands of patrons while hoping they don’t miss what’s happening on stage. Who knows?

Perhaps Kaeja d’Dance is on to something and augmented reality is the evolution of live theatre. I hope that day doesn’t come too soon. This troupe’s work deserves your undivided attention!

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