In the minutes before their rehearsal at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre, Shay Kuebler’s cast isn’t doing the sort of soft stretching you usually see before a dance practice. Instead, the men and women are jumping up and down, doing pushups and handstands, and performing “flowers”—a joint-defying Shaolin kung fu move where people windmill their arms so fast they turn into a blur.
Clearly, these folks are preparing for physical extremes—but not just the athletic mix of martial-arts– and street-tinged contemporary dance Kuebler is known for.
His new work, Glory, takes on the rising amount of violence in our world and media. When the rehearsal begins, it’s a vision of six bodies pushing in and exploding out, tackling and tangling. Everyone grabs at Hayden Fong as he pulls and strains, trying to break free of the crowd’s grip; at another point, two guys catapult Lexi Vajda in the air, sending her flying into Rebecca Margolick and Fong in a sort of supercharged stage dive.
When the show premieres at the Chutzpah Festival, it will also find the dancers boomeranging around the floor on harnesses—a way, Kuebler says, of amplifying the movement the way movies and video games amplify violence. “People have been actually concerned for my safety, so that’s good,” the physical daredevil, who also performs in the work, says with a laugh, quickly adding: “That’s why research is so important. We start with one guy, then two, then add more, and it gets more risky.”
Kuebler has been developing the piece as artist in residence at this year’s fest, but it’s a concept he’s been playing with for almost two years now. As a kid, he grew up watching martial-arts flicks and the action movies that were booming at the time. It was also an era when video games like Nintendo were on the rise. But looking around him today, he’s noticed how much more extreme the violence is that we’re bombarded with on-screen.
“With Nintendo, you jumped on an enemy and it blinked. Now kids are playing war games and throwing grenades,” he observes, taking a break in the Rothstein lobby.
All that experience, and Kuebler’s own training in the martial arts as well as hip-hop, tap, and contemporary dance, have coalesced in Glory, a multimedia work that has five video and projection elements, as well as a carefully edited soundscape of classical music, metal, old jazz, TV soundtracks, and more.
And Kuebler has as much of a hand in that score as in the defined movement: “As an artist I’m kinda OCD, ADD, controlling,” he jokes, but you sense it’s exactly his attention to detail that gives his work such a singular look and feel. Such devotion and discipline have to come at least in part from martial arts—which Kuebler still studies, including a monthlong stint last summer in China immersing himself in Shaolin kung fu. (He’s also trained in capoeira and shito-ryu, along with tai chi and qigong.)
The practice has given him a unique view on violence. “Martial arts are beautiful, because people in martial arts are not violent people,” he explains. “You’re getting your ass kicked on a daily basis, so you’re humble. It also gives you confidence: you don’t want to prove yourself.”
In his new show’s vignettes, we see Kuebler address film violence and the way we beautify or glorify it; one recurring scene finds a victim in a horror movie trying to outrun someone chasing him. Glory also plays with our ideas of voyeurism, with a TV monitor and multiple projections replaying what we see on-stage.
The work seems a natural extension of Kuebler’s hit Karoshi, a piece inspired by the concept of working oneself to death. The themes are different in Glory, but both works have a cinematic quality—Kuebler loves contrasting lightning-fast scenes with slo-mo one)—and a love of sound effects.
What they also have in common is the ability to attract and entertain a young audience—a hip, pop-culture- and tech-savvy generation that isn’t your typical dance crowd. Which brings Kuebler to the “A-word”. “I really do mean this,” the passionate artist begins, leaning forward to stress his point. “I want to make accessible work that can also be artistic and take people on an unexpected journey. I want to draw people that don’t necessarily go to the theatre. That’s critical to me.
“It has to be dance with a purpose,” he adds. “With the media saturation today, things have to hit and move, hit and move.”
Shay Kuebler’s Radical System Arts presents Glory from Saturday to Monday (February 21 to 23) at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre as part of the Chutzpah Festival.