Choreographed by Chris Haring, Stephanie Cumming, and Johnny Schoofs. A Liquid Loft production. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Thursday, October 31. Continues until November 2
The advance buzz about Running Sushi was not all that enticing. According to some media reports, the show drew on western misconceptions about Japanese culture, illustrating that theme with “superflat” movement based on the highly stylized—and often highly sexualized—postures common to anime and manga. It all sounded rather dry.
But the beauty of dance is that at its best it can bring complex philosophical statements to gorgeous, fleshly life, and this was certainly the case with the latest effort from Vienna’s Liquid Loft company. Yes, the cultural markers were there, most effectively in an opening sequence that featured dancers Stephanie Cumming and Johnny Schoofs mouthing hilarious misinterpretations of common Japanese terms, most having to do with food. (Wasabi, for instance, is a volcano that has become a popular tourist site.) Manga references were also threaded throughout the work, most often in Cumming’s teasing sexuality and Schoofs’s uncanny ability to scream with his mouth while smiling with his eyes.
But what the piece is really about transcends cultural and geographic boundaries, as Liquid Loft artistic director Chris Haring hinted at in his brief introductory remarks. Running Sushi depicts “a man and a woman trying to live together”, he said, and that has to be as delicate a balancing act in Ottawa or Oman as it is in Osaka.
Of course the relationship drama carries its own set of potential pitfalls, and this production managed to skirt them all thanks to its disregard for conventional narrative structure, its super-smart staging, and truly exceptional performances from Cumming and Schoofs.
The title derives from the kind of “conveyor belt” sushi restaurant in which plates of fish and vinegared rice are sent coursing around the room, to be snatched up by eager diners (or left to become unappetizingly dry, as the case might be). In this instance, Cumming and Schoofs began their performance by circulating through the Dance Centre lobby with small plates of sushi; the order in which the snacks were snatched up determined the way the show’s 12 vignettes were sequenced.
Adding to this element of John Cage–inspired indeterminacy was Andreas Berger’s brilliant sound design: by placing three speakers immediately behind the performers, he was able to completely blur the lines between live and recorded sound. I’m still puzzling over what was spoken by the performers and what was lip-synched, although that task was made somewhat easier whenever Berger degraded the sound so that speech became a kind of abstract, albeit musical, mumbling. Lighting designer Thomas Jelinek matched Berger’s easy elegance by illuminating the performers in remorseless “natural” light, auroral blues and greens, or incandescent crimson, while Annja Krautgasser’s simple rectangular set resembled a gallery plinth, a modernist coffee table, or, most often, a big, stained bed.
That was the canvas on which Cumming and Schoofs delivered a vision of coupledom that was sexy, poignant, and hilarious, often all at the same time. Sequences of existential angst (with Schoofs lit from above so that his eyes were caverns of black despair) blurred into domestic nattering and then into an outrageous fantasy sequence in which Cumming shot sex rays from her breasts while Schoofs vibrated as if enjoying an electrical orgasm. Nudity was deployed, at first tastefully and then hilariously; sex roles were explored, then reversed. Chopsticks turned an orange into a Sputnik, and then became a lattice linking the two dancers together, only to fall away as Schoofs and Cumming moved inexorably apart.
I can’t say that there was never a dull moment; Running Sushi would be stronger if it were perhaps two vignettes shorter. Other than that, though, it’s joyously imaginative and yummy dance.