A Radical System Art production. A Vancouver International Dance Festival presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday, March 6. No remaining performances
Radical System Art’s new Epilogos is like a marathon for its performers—if they had to do back flips and downrock the entire distance.
It’s not just that Vancouver choreographer and performer Shay Kuebler requires his crew to master his singularly athletic mashup of martial arts, hip-hop, and contemporary dance. He also pushes them beyond what should physically be possible. The show demands near-superhuman core strength, as much for the women as the men, as they lift and swing each other around, drop to the ground and snap up again, whipsaw their arms, or flip on one hand across the floor.
Kuebler is a master of tension and release, and when the troupe “pops” out of its freezes it’s explosive. During the brief moments when the electro score pauses, all you can hear is bodies gulping for air from the stage.
The other indelible aspect of his newest show is its LED light wall, a brilliant floor-to-ceiling backdrop that conjures, by turn, old-Broadway-style stages, pixellated video, rainstorms, lightning, and ever-morphing patterns. It allows Kuebler to shift the moods of each themed section of the work, but also to tap into the glitzy commercial-billboard quality of the lights—a perfect tie-in to the show’s theme of rhetoric, salesmanship, and propaganda. On an added level, the bulbs respond to sound and movement, rippling and erupting. They’re like another character in the show.
Epilogos opens with the dancers enacting a ritual, pouring water over a bowed-down Kuebler and dressing him in a suit, tie, and pork-pie hat. Kuebler rises to suddenly become “the orator”, a sort of grand showman-politician-persuader who mobilizes the six others. He doesn’t speak, but rather moves his body with the language of rhetoric, pointing, reaching out to us, and raising his arms emphatically above his head. Choreographically, this is Kuebler’s biggest strength in this production: sampling, speeding up, and melding the gestures of dictators and politicians into adrenalized dance sequences.
Together they “sell” certain ideas—morality, duty, integrity, compassion, and other values are spelled out digitally across the lightwall to theme each vignette. The concepts are part of Bushido’s samurai moral code. Each projects a different mood: “courage” finds Kuebler darting amid a lightning storm, stopping each time a bolt cuts down the light wall; “compassion” features the dancers turning and supporting each other in sculptural lifts; “honour” starts with Kuebler’s showman pop-and-lock-posturing in a regal gold robe.
But then the power shifts and the minions turn on their leader. He tries the same shtick over and over, but things start to glitch out—in his body and across the light wall. Let’s just say everyone realizes the emperor has no clothes.
That’s when it becomes most apparent that Kuebler is talking about our world—one full of fast talkers and divisive rhetoric that sometimes backfires. Donald Trump looms large.
Epilogos continues the artist’s themes of manipulation and control from his last piece, the tap-fuelled Telemetry. He also pushes further with his group work, sending bodies rolling and scattering into elaborate formations and then freezing them before they erupt again.
There’s a lot going on in Epilogos, possibly too much; sometimes the audience needs a breather to take in some of the more oblique intellectual concepts—with wide-ranging touchstones from Aristotle to samurai culture, not to mention the high-octane dance.
But with humour, cutting-edge visuals, and truly pummelling dance, Kuebler is pushing ever-ambitiously into timely ideas. Call it a show that has brains and brawn.