Shay Kuebler's Karoshi is ambitious and darkly funny
A Shay Kuebler production. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Thursday, December 6. Continues to December 8
Shay Kuebler doesn’t need help with any anger-management issues at the moment; every night he’s on-stage with his explosive and darkly funny Karoshi, he gets the chance to work out all his frustrations in high style.
To tell you just what goes on after his team rolls one of Japan’s infamous “anger booths” on-stage, and when he steps inside to turn a fit of rage into a maniacal choreography all its own, would give away one of Karoshi’s most twisted pleasures. Suffice it to say that when Kuebler emerges again, he looks to have exorcised all his demons—and then some.
It’s just one of many memorable scenes in a six-male-dancer work that’s as cleverly imaginative as it is physically pummelling. Kuebler riffs here on the strangling pressures of the bubble economy in circa-’90s Japan—still the only country in the world to keep statistics on karoshi, or death from overwork. On one level, the piece is an ambitious, multilayered look at how individuals let off steam in a society that values discipline above all else. Among the specific references to Japan here, men sway zombielike on a subway train, and then tumble out of their daze when kitschy music signals the next stop. But you don’t need to have squeezed into Shinjuku station to get what’s going on here: basically anyone who’s ever sat in a cubicle glued to their computer, anywhere on Earth, will be able to relate. Witness the cool opening number where Kuebler seems to spar with his PC, complete with chop-socky-film sound effects.
Kuebler, who you know from the 605 Collective and other companies like Animals of Distinction, uses a vocabulary that melds the flow of contemporary dance, the physicality of hip-hop, and the tension and release of martial arts—just some of the influences in his varied background. And fortunately, his other dancers—Scott Augustine, Hayden Fong, Nicholas Lydiate, and Manuel Sorge—have enough breadth to nail the athleticism, the dives, and the karate punches.
The moves blend with multimedia effects to create some stunning imagery: in a sequence about karaoke (another way office workers let off pressure in the land of the rising sun), watch the dancers tumble across the stage in spotlights, becoming out-of-control white balls bouncing over the projected words to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. In another scene, they become the blips and dashes hurtling across a stock market’s scrolling stats.
Karoshi may take place on an all-but-bare set, but the combination of lighting effects (Craig Alfredson and Kuebler) and video and projection design (Josh Hite) create vivid worlds. Mixed with the show’s blend of electronica and live, thundering taiko drumming by Jason Overy, it has a cool, multimedia feel.
Kuebler has been working since last year to expand the piece to its current full length and about the only complaint is that it occasionally feels stretched out. Less condense and intense, it’s lost a small bit of its initial punch; both the opening vignette at the computer and the final crescendo of unhinged, all-or-nothing dance feel longer than they need to be. Kuebler has a real knack for patterning his dancers, sending them marching across the stage in their business suits, then having them fall, quite literally, out of formation, one by one, until the entire unit is shattered. But there’s a lot of this repeated here. A piece with this kind of energy should feel tighter than a Tokyo capsule motel.
That’s just a quibble, though, when pitted against Karoshi’s visceral cleverness. This is hip, highly entertaining dance—and one that should send its artists home feeling ecstatic, not angry.