Vancouver dance artist Shay Kuebler has been watching a lot of political speeches lately, and not just those of a certain American president on the nightly news. He’s studied the gestures of people in power through history, but he has to admit the man behind the MAGA hats has had an almost inescapable effect on his dynamic new piece about rhetoric, Epilogos.
“Trump definitely has an influence on his audience,” he observes, speaking to the Straight from his company Radical System Art’s tour stop in Vernon, before heading to Vancouver. “He had just been running for office when I started working on the piece, and then he got elected. There’s a lot of bad stuff around the man, but he has this way of manipulating people—even when he’s making himself a victim. There’s an interesting conversation in the show about being a villain and the victim, and how they can be forms of persuasion.”
In the multimedia Epilogos, Trump’s and others’ gestures of persuasion get amplified and distilled through Kuebler’s own explosively physical language. The movement of the six performers, with a bowler-hatted Kuebler as their catalyst, called “the orator”, triggers sound and walls of pixellated light via biomechanical sensors. And the performance becomes a piece of propaganda itself.
Kuebler has borrowed gestures from dictators and others at the podium through history. He uses pointing a finger as an example: “We call it the ‘Uncle Sam’..…And with the point you can have the body completely centred, or when you put yourself off your centre, you create a sense of urgency.”
In signature fashion, Kuebler, who began studying martial arts at the age of four and has pursued everything from tap to hip-hop, has layered multiple concepts into the show. One is Aristotle’s ideas on rhetoric. Another is the moral code of Bushido, the way of the samurai. Each section finds the dancers persuading us to see the value in duty, integrity, compassion, courage, honour, truth, and morality.
At first, Kuebler played with those concepts in front of video screens, but he wanted to push the idea further. That’s when he started seeing the potential of light walls—the strands of LED lights often used in storefronts.
“It’s a show within a show. We’re trying to convince the audience, and video projections just didn’t have the impact,” he recounts.
“With the light walls, in one way you’re seeing light bulbs, but at the same time, if you put video into it, it becomes digital and pixellated. So it has this vaudevillian, kind of analogue-era look with digital media, so there’s a crossover of different eras.”
The biggest challenge has been the brightness. “We started at 20 percent and I think we all had goggles on,” Kuebler says with a laugh. “There’s a slow process of revealing them [the lights] in the show. I think we only use them at seven or 10 percent now.”
As excited as he is about this new technological ground, Kuebler stresses his work is not just about production elements. “For me, the biggest production element is still the performer,” says the artist, who has danced for Kidd Pivot and the Holy Body Tattoo.
By way of example, he goes back to July 2017, when he created a work at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina. “Over 300 students from all over the world,” he says, adding they get to audition for the works, like his, that are created. “They said, ‘You can have video or whatever technical elements you want,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t need video! I want 28 people!’ ” he relates.
It’s that kind of ambition and vision that is keeping Kuebler busy these days. His last work, the tap-dance-driven Telemetry, continues to tour the world, even as Epilogos opens.
“Telemetry’s 45th show is in Serbia on April 7,” he enthuses. “It’s pretty amazing. With these shows, there’s a lot of work to get them off the ground, and it’s nice to see them have a life.”
Kuebler is quick to credit his team, including the dancers who have committed to his pummelling movement. “I have so much love and appreciation for them,” he says. “They bust their asses in the show. This work really needed a strong ensemble connection, because it really talks about the value system in the group. An idea is only as powerful as the people behind it. It’s a beast of a show.”
Still, at this moment, it’s difficult to imagine anyone working quite as hard as Kuebler. On this day, he’s helping to haul out the giant strands of lights from the Epilogos tour’s three cargo vans. He’s not just choreographer and dancer in the show, but he’s directed it and composed the score.
“I have very big ambitions; I’m kind of an asshole to myself sometimes,” he says. “I haven’t opened a show in Vancouver for three years. And then after this, it’s back to Europe with Telemetry. It’s a little terrifying. But we’re building the momentum. And I’m really proud of the work; it’s really attaining what I thought it could.” And, like the orator in Epilogos, he’s awfully persuasive.
The Vancouver International Dance Festival presents Epilogos at the Vancouver Playhouse on March 6 and 7.