Hiroaki Umeda's Haptic and Holistic Strata summon sensory overload

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      A Hiroaki Umeda/S20 production. Presented by the Dance Centre and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Friday, January 25. Continues until January 27

      If you had just been watching the audience, you might have thought they were seeing a new installment of Hostel. Some people were jumping in surprise, cringing, and covering their eyes or ears. This is not the norm for a dance production. But then Hiroaki Umeda is not the norm for the dance world.

      The Tokyo interdisciplinary artist’s show has my vote for the one that “pushes” farthest toward the edge at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Welcome to the extreme, people. Umeda, returning to the fest after a stint in 2009, has created what can only be called a visual and aural assault. The soundtrack is an onslaught of digital feedback, with screeches, buzzing, and thundering roars that by turns drill at the back of your eyeballs and rumble in your chest.

      Mixed with the visual effects, it’s disturbingly disorienting. In the first work, Haptic, the stage glows from cold blue to searing lime green to hot red. Umeda is a shadow against it all, a possessed leg or arm skittishly squiggling through the air, his hips and back alternately jerking robotically or undulating hypnotically. Sometimes he just stands eerily still. There are recognizable elements of hip-hop top-rocking and pop-and-locking as well as butoh in his movement, but Umeda has a strange, understated yet frenetic style all his own.

      At intermission you find yourself bracing for the second piece, and Holistic Strata turns out to be even more intense—and, in its own brutal way, spectacular. With the opening sound of a crash, his body is suddenly covered in a galaxy of tiny lights. He starts to move against a projected milky way that becomes a blizzard of swirling particles both behind him and on the floor beneath him. Sometimes Umeda seems to fight against it; at others it seems to move when he moves. Witnessing this impossible-seeming illusion, you lose all sense of perspective and solid ground.

      Is it a vision of man vying against the universe? A group of particles caught up in an unknowable cosmos? A man caught in the machine of the digital age, a blip amid the static? Sorry, but you really can’t read too much into the piece when you know that Umeda’s main purpose, as stated in the program and elsewhere around the world where he has performed, is to “transmit sensations, rather than messages”.

      So, in the end, does that make Haptic and Holistic Strata more like endurance tests? These are not pieces that are meant to be enjoyed, after all. Still, you cannot help but admire the hard-core artist, who, unlike us, is not sitting watching the blinding blizzard of moving lights from outside, but is in the middle of the maelstrom, trying to hold his balance.    

      Here’s a PuSh show that pushes you till you can’t take it anymore—as in, you fear your head might explode, Scanners-style. Leaving the Dance Centre, eyes throbbing and disoriented, one couldn’t help but notice our Mayor Gregor Robertson also leaving the show, and hoping for his own safety that he wasn’t planning to pedal his way home along the bike lanes.