Plastic orchid factory's dancers delve into wishful thinking with I Care What You Think

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      Plastic orchid factory’s newly remounted production is called I Care What You Think, and to prove that sentiment, its creators ask audience members to write down their wishes before the show.

      Those wishes are read out and revisited as part of the interdisciplinary dance work—often with effects that surprise even the artistic team that is mounting this new version of a production that debuted in 2016 at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.

      “I don’t think people, when they write their wishes down, expect them to resonate,” says choreographer James Gnam, who collaborated on the work with dance artists Vanessa Goodman and Jane Osborne, and lighting designer James Proudfoot. He’s talking to the Straight by speakerphone, alongside plastic orchid co–artistic director Natalie LeFebvre Gnam. “In the performance space you can feel it when their wishes were read into the space.

      “Wishing seems like such a childish, fanciful, whimsical thing, but the act of wishing makes us consider what we really want,” Gnam continues. “Our interactions with the world are largely defining the things we won’t do or won’t engage in. But this is to carve out space to imagine something better for the world.”

      “It’s really intimate but you feel like you have this ginormous picture of things,” LeFebvre Gnam adds.

      In the first run of the show, the group got desires as simple as “I hope the next hour is not a waste of my time” and “I wish someone would compliment my rain jacket.” But, more often, audiences’ wishes spoke to an inner or tumultuous world: “It was things like ‘I wish it would stop raining,’ and then ‘I wish we weren’t having to have conversations about Donald Trump,’ ” Gnam says, “or ‘I wish I didn’t have to have conversations about climate change.’ ”

      The communal act of voicing our concerns plays into the theme of the show, which Gnam describes simply as “how we can be together”. “We” refers to the artists, who have known each other well over a decade, but also to the larger community.

      “Over the course of 12 years we’ve really been able to distill and understand where the other person is coming from,” Gnam says of the relationship between the dancers and lighting designer, all of whom strove to create the piece in a nonhierarchical manner, with an equal voice for every participant. “And then a lot of it is ‘How can we be together in the world the way it is right now?’ ”

      Look for direct references to Trump; in one scene, Osborne and Gnam draw directly from the physical language the U.S. president uses when he’s making his speeches. But Gnam says they also interweave movement that portrays what he calls a “reaching back for these personal wishes for things to be different”—a loss or a yearning for better times.

      “One of the things that dance as a practice and as a vehicle for performance does really well is embodying paradox—things that are contradictory,” Gnam says.

      Striking visual elements are as much a part of the piece as the choreography—in fact, the company calls it a “dance installation”. There are atmospheric projections and a small army of life-sized cardboard figures. They lie broken on the floor, sometimes float in the air, and populate parts of the seating and front-of-house. The wind from electric fans occasionally blows across them so they move in the space, and Proudfoot sends strobes and searchlights moving among them.

      In I Care What You Think, striking visual elements are as crucial as the choreography.

      “We agreed that when we go to see dance, we’re often watching bodies in crisis—and all of us were exhausted with that idea. We said, ‘Let’s get these cardboard bodies and let them be in crisis,’ ” Gnam says.

      “They [the cardboard figures] felt a little less inanimate and sort of eerily alive, animated in a world where they’re not human, but they’re kind of human,” LeFebvre Gnam adds.

      In the end, the overriding—and most subversive—thing that I Care What You Think generates is empathy, Gnam stresses.

      “How can we support one another in a world that is kind of fraught with division and misinformation and toxic politics?” Gnam says. “And then how can we actually resist—resist this tide of racism and hate and xenophobia?”

      Plastic orchid factory and Boca del Lupo present I Care What You Think at Performance Works from Thursday to Saturday (October 3 to 5).