Plastic Orchid Factory’s Chunking stormtroops into memory
When Plastic Orchid Factory’s James Gnam started working with his brother, Ballet B.C. dancer Connor Gnam, on a dance piece about memory, there were two things that were bound to come up. The first, of course, was ballet; James was himself a dancer with Ballet B.C. before launching this new contemporary company in 2009. The second, naturally for the two Victoria-raised siblings, was Star Wars. And so, when James’s newly choreographed Chunking debuts next week, expect not only the odd pointe shoe and corrugated-plastic tutu, but also Stormtrooper helmets.
‘“Memory always seems to reach back to childhood,” says Gnam, who has also integrated memory fragments from his other four dancers—wife and Plastic Orchid Factory cofounder Natalie LeFebvre Gnam, plus Vanessa Goodman, Jane Osborne, and Bevin Poole. He’s sitting at a Broadway café before heading to Burnaby for rehearsals. “You relive so many of the things that you loved when you were children.” Sometimes those things can be a hindrance to moving on stage, though: Gnam says he and his brother are still working with the ability to see properly through the plastic windows on the Stormtrooper helmets, and they’ve luckily found some lightweight versions to wear in the show.
Despite the playfulness, Chunking is definitely the young company’s most ambitious creation to date. Plastic headgear isn’t the only challenge: in what is quickly becoming the contemporary troupe’s hallmark, the show pulls together several multimedia collaborations with other artists. A video screen sits unusually at centre stage, projecting live feeds of the moving bodies as they fly around and behind it (with help from media artist Josh Hite); the electro-infused sound design, by Kevin Legere and Scott MacPherson, deconstructs classical music; and lighting veteran James Proudfoot has to illuminate the dance not just for the audience, but for the live cameras.
All the multimedia elements and choreography are aimed at capturing the elusive nature of memory—how we prioritize our experiences and file them away in our psyches. The term chunking itself refers to the way we group experiences into clusters in our minds when we set about performing memory-related tasks.
And that holds especially true when performing dance. “Memory sits on both ends of a dance work,” Gnam explains. “It’s why it’s created, and where it lives afterward.”
The project has been three years in the making, based on smaller pieces Gnam has worked on over that time, including experiments with dual cameras at EDAM and improvising work via the international Triptych choreography project. But Gnam says its most important inspiration came from his now-five-year-old son, Finn, and watching him gradually start to develop an archive of memory.
“When he was three, he talked about these ‘magic eyes’ he had,” explains Gnam. “We didn’t pay much attention to it. Then we realized when he talked about these magic eyes he was remembering things that had happened. He could see them, but he didn’t have the tools to explain it.
“That was a bit confusing for us at first, because the magic eyes could also shoot ghosts and there were lasers involved,” he adds with a laugh. “But it got me thinking about how memories work, and there were things he would hold onto that were not necessarily things I would.”
Finn, as it turns out, has stayed a part of the project right through to watching rehearsals for Chunking. Reports Gnam: “He’s been doing the Stormtrooper dance around the house.” Clearly, his father’s and his uncle’s genes are carrying through to the next generation.
Plastic Orchid Factory’s Chunking is at Burnaby’s Shadbolt Centre for the Arts from Wednesday (November 28) to December 1.