In the darkened Studio T at SFU Woodward’s, projections of an abstracted Berlin cityscape are melting down from four screens and across the floor to where we’re sitting, like a slow-moving flood. At other points, media designer Remy Siu conjures a galaxy of moving stars throughout the space, and a warping, perspective-stumping grid on the floor.
This is the high-tech, immersive world the dancers in choreographer Rob Kitsos’s new Saudade will inhabit. And this is also the new frontier of dance being explored in the campus’s interdisciplinary School for the Contemporary Arts. Kitsos’s research project was built, from the beginning, with Siu, composer Nancy Tam, and dramaturgist DD Kugler, so its music, movement, and multimedia worlds are seamlessly integrated.
“I love that technology can enhance our kinesthetic response to movement,” Kitsos, an associate professor in the School for the Contemporary Arts, says, sitting in the theatre and looking down at the imagery. Speaking of the multimedia projections, he adds: “They’re interactive and responsive, shifting things on the floor with the dancers and projecting things on their bodies.”
Kitsos explains Saudade (the Portuguese word for wishful, melancholic longing) was inspired by two iconic 1980s films: Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Kitsos was interested in the visual “aura” they both had and in the idea of the nonhuman characters—angels in the former film, replicants in the latter—who yearn for human experience.
As Kitsos writes in his program notes, “Both films investigate—through textures, sprawling landscapes, duration of light—a timeless longing.” From that inspiration he started immediately to build the piece with the other interdisciplinary artists.
It’s a way of working that strongly reflects the approach of the new interdisciplinary curriculum at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, where Kitsos sits as undergraduate chair. It’s a program where musicians, filmmakers, dancers, visual artists, and theatre artists sit side by side in class, forming relationships and bouncing ideas off one another.
Describing the curriculum’s core subjects, Kitsos explains, “Everyone takes composition, for example. Musicians, dancers: and they all take it.
“So I feel my research and my piece reflect the philosophy of the school,” continues Kitsos, whose five dancers include several from the program. “In the first year you’re creating those relationships—you’re meeting a composer and a filmmaker. And often they become collectives when they graduate.”
The drive to mash forms and incorporate immersive multimedia also reflects what’s happening in contemporary performance, he adds. “It’s Crystal Pite, Robert Lepage—those kinds of influences,” he says. “And technology has become more user-friendly. When I’m sitting here, I can say, ‘Can we try that?’ and typically ‘that’ would have taken five hours in the studio before. And now, on a laptop, we can compose on the spot.”
Many of the artists involved in Saudade will still be creating “on the spot” when the piece is performed. Siu can manipulate his imagery and make it respond to dancers’ movement, while composer Tam says she has sound files she can trigger during the show, while performing on an analogue synthesizer and other instruments. The sound, like the projected imagery, surrounds the viewers in the studio, with speakers mounted around the space.
The resulting piece, Kitsos says, feels very cinematic, collagelike, and immersive. Film fans will recognize some visual references to the source material, including those images of Berlin from Wenders’s art-house romantic fantasy, and mechanical nods to the replicants of Scott’s dystopian sci-fi-noir. Amid all this, the dancers are lit in glowing, golden hues. Two move flowingly and gracefully, like the angels they represent, while you recognize the two Blade Runner–inspired replicants by their rigid, robotic body language. In the middle of them all is a human character—the one they all watch curiously, yearning to experience life as she does.
“What the angels were wanting in Wings of Desire and what the replicants were longing for in Blade Runner was more life,” Kitsos says. “So it becomes an investigation of what it means to be human.”
It also becomes an investigation of what humans can achieve when given cutting-edge tools and an open, collaborative framework.
Saudade is at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from Thursday to Saturday (December 17 to 19).