Chunking takes a weirdly intriguing tour through the subconscious mind

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A Plastic Orchid Factory production. At the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts on Saturday, December 1. No remaining performances

Visually, conceptually, and technically, choreographer James Gnam and the Plastic Orchid Factory have a winner in Chunking. Whether it connects on an emotional level, however, is another matter—and most likely a very subjective one.

I’m still dancing around that myself. On the last night of the new show’s inaugural run, the movement was stunning and the content provocative. Yet, impressed as I was, I felt distanced from it too. At first, I thought this was simply due to the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts’ excessively hot and airless ambiance; at approximately the same temperature, though not quite the steaminess, of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Amazon gallery, it stultified the mind. Then I thought it might have been due to the deliberately unsettling effect of the show’s media design: Josh Hite had placed a large screen at the left-hand front of the stage, effectively blocking out a third of the action—although sometimes said action was projected onto said screen. There’s also the fact that while the Star Wars trilogy apparently plays a large role in Gnam’s memory, it occupies very little space in mine. And on the way out of the venue, a choreographer friend suggested that Kevin Legere and Scott MacPherson’s repetitious and metronomic score also limited the new work’s impact. I think she’s right.

That’s a lot of quibbling for a work that was nonetheless enjoyable.

Chunking works best when it directly addresses Gnam’s central thesis: that we process memory by grouping “information and experience into clusters based on criteria which varies from person to person”. In his program notes, the choreographer-performer also reiterated that “we all see and remember things differently.” That’s a good thing to keep in mind when reading any review of an aesthetic experience.

For me, Hite’s big screen was an alienating factor, yet at the same time it was also an extremely apt metaphor for the way that memory is subjective—or even, at times, blind. Seeing the dancers’ legs moving behind the screen as their magnified torsos were projected onto it highlighted the way that, in remembering, we focus on what we want to see. And when the cameras took us backstage as the performers hugged and mugged, we were also reminded that even the keenest memories are limited in perspective. Whether in hindsight or in waking life, there’s no way we can know everything that’s going on; we just get glimpses of reality.

Sometimes, too, reality is downright surreal—as in the Chunking passages where Gnam and his brother Connor slunk around the stage in Stormtrooper masks and tighty whities, moving with the comical, mock-surreptitious elasticity of the cartoon world’s Pink Panther.

But what was that all about?

Legere and MacPherson’s shiny, happy electro-reggae pulse worked well for the brothers Gnam’s duets, but their limited sonic palette did little to enhance the segments that featured Natalie Lefebvre Gnam, Vanessa Goodman, Jane Osborne, and Bevin Poole. Plastic Orchid Factory artistic producer Lefebvre Gnam, wearing a light-up tiara and a cardboard tutu, excelled in one sequence that featured pointe work, and Poole’s poise is always a pleasure to watch.

Ultimately, though, Chunking is not a showcase for individual virtuosity so much as a quick tour through its choreographer’s subconscious mind. Shadowy and limited though that passage might be, it was also weirdly intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and at times quite lovely.

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