Wells Hill artfully revisits the ideas of Marshall McLuhan with multimedia style

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      An Action at a Distance production. An SFU Woodward’s and DanceHouse presentation. At the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre on Friday, November 24. Continues to November 26

      In Wells Hill, dancers are drawn to a mysterious fluorescent-glowing shape. It looks like an upside-down Plexiglass pyramid, but it can stand in for any addictive technology—from the television screen to the cellphone. The performers gather around it, and sit hypnotized in its cold, Orwellian glare.

      One of the best things emerging choreographer Vanessa Goodman does in her ambitious new full-length multimedia piece is remind us how prescient cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan was about how the digital age would change us. The show’s most compelling aspect is the words of the man himself, the glitched-out soundscape and visual projections capturing his most salient predictions, along with those from his colleague and fellow innovator Glenn Gould. Video and old sound clips from them interweave with samples of Gould’s piano variations with haunting electronic music by Gabriel Saloman and Scott Morgan (Loscil), and the uncomfortable buzz of static and feedback.

      Even James Proudfoot’s stark lighting is glitchy, his rows of fluorescent bars sometimes flashing like strobes. As it should, Wells Hill plays with the medium, and thus its message.

      In fact, watching the piece may send you on a quest to your nearest used-book store (should you actually be able to find one in 2017) to brush up on McLuhan’s theories. In Wells Hill, we hear him speak of a day when technology would become an “extension of our bodies”; of how three-year-olds, even in his own TV era, are having their attention spans corroded by too much data, too fast; and, perhaps most eerily psychic in this My Story-happy, selfie-stick generation, how technology will start to alter our very sense of self.

      Goodman has divided the piece into pre- and post-Internet halves. The first part is more flowing, but the wavelike movement is often interrupted. The coming of the digital age is announced by an almost deafening buzz, followed by catatonic, robotlike movement—the community has become the machine, a nation of zombies who don’t interact. Later they seem to create a new physical language, their lunging, reaching, bending bodies almost eerily embodying pictograms.

      One of the most fully realized, integrated moments comes when racing rows of text roll over each contorting dancer, capturing what it’s like to live amid the frenzied information overload McLuhan predicted. Performer Arash Khakpour is even repeatedly blown over by the projected data, hurling himself backward. But little by little the dancers seem to find themselves amid that rush, rediscovering and grounding themselves in the human and the corporeal. The end is also poignant, a return to simple, classical movement to the strains of Gould’s echoey piano.

      Occasionally, the dance becomes too amorphous, its relation to the intellectual ideas more difficult to fathom, though Goodman is always strong at building entire atmospheric environments on-stage. And her dancers here are top-flight and committed.

      To her credit, Goodman, like McLuhan, posits neither a negative nor positive connotation to our wired world; rather she asks us to consider it, and the way it’s altered our physical state, our identity, and our society—as McLuhan might put it, our "global village". You won’t look at your cellphone the same way after the show.