Shay Kuebler and MADBOOTS bring raw, young energy to Chutzpah Fest stage

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      Featuring Radical System Art and MADBOOTS Dance. A Chutzpah Festival presentation. At the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Saturday, February 20. Continues to February 22

      The Chutzpah Festival's dance programming kicked off Saturday night with a palpable rush of fresh energy, spotlighting two companies run by young men trying to push both forms and ideas that speak to a new generation.

      Vancouver's own Shay Kuebler, of Radical System Art, blazed into exciting new territory. Known for playing with multimedia, narrative, and theatrical props—everything from pseudo-horror-movie clips to shaving cream to Japanese "anger booths" over the years—the artist here turned his focus back to the mindblowing smorgasbord of street, contemporary, and martial-arts styles that have influenced him. 

      The resulting launch of his two-year Telemetry project shows the mad skills that underlie Kuebler's busier projects. The whoops and cheers that frequently interrupted the proceedings prove  this kind of work is speaking to people. Kuebler was building sculptural, contemporary dance, no doubt, but he simultaneously manages to build a feeling a bit like a breaking battle. It's hugely accessible without sacrificing artistic chops. The guy knows how to put on a show.

      Young, local tap-dance genius Daniel Nielsen opens the show in darkness, suddenly activating the glaring light stands that are synchronized to flash with each dramatic beat of his foot.

      From there, Kuebler plays the rushing, tangling, convulsing moves of his four dancers against Nielsen's ever-quickening hoofing. When the piece works best, there's a kind of mad synchronicity: Nielsen slides and taps back and forth on a long platform along the back of the stage as Kuebler and his crew tumble in front of him; or he captures the skittery trance rhythms of the electronics-pumped soundtrack as the dancers pull in and explode out like a pulsing organism.

      Kuebler's movement, meanwhile, is becoming more and more hybridized, with its carefully sculpted forms, hints of top rocks, hand stands, and other B-boy tricks, but also the fast footwork and partnering of forms like bebop and swing. It's balls-to-the-wall movement, a physical spectacle he loves to build to insane crescendoes as the music pulses faster. Each dancer brings his or her own something-something, with Kuebler a focused fireball, Nicholas Lydiate cool and contained, Tyler Layton Olson loose and hyperenergized, Alex Tam athletic and upbeat, and Lexi Vajda holding her own against the guys. 

      New York City's MADBOOTS, too, pushes physicality to the edge, but to entirely different effect. Run by the 20-something duo of Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz, the all-male troupe grew out of the same city's Sidra Bell Dance New York, and there's a similar penchant for emotional extremes, shocking imagery, and wildly mixed music clips here.

      Christopher Duggan photo.

      What sets it apart are the strong messages about homophobia and male identity that drive the work. At different points in (SAD BOYS), the four men spin each other around violently by chest harnesses, wear eerie white nylon lace masks pulled over their faces, dance amid homophobic slurs like "sissy" and "faggot" projected on the floor, and kick through a pile of dirtlike multch that tumbles in from one side of the stage. It's not all dark: sometimes it ventures into camp, including the opening sequence of a Chuck Wilt letting his long hair blow in the wind of a fan to Jimi Hendrix's screeching "Star-Spangled Banner", or sometimes it's tender, as two men melt into the embrace of a slow dance. 

      Most of the movement vocabulary is athletic and earthbound, with a lot of running in circles and twisted torsos.

      The messages here are clear, the imagery is dramatic, and the emotion is palpable. These are ideas that need to be expressed and speak to a sea change that's going on—the acceptance of all the colours of gender, the speaking out about the kind of bullying Campbell and Diaz have both experienced. Thankfully, none of this comes across as too literal or earnest here, and the dancers are magnetic and committed. It's just that there may be too much going on—a plethora of ideas that need to be moulded, a bit like that unruly pile of dirt.

      Still, like Kuebler's work, (SAD BOYS) is never uninteresting to watch, and its bold outpouring speaks to a raw, straightforward kind of passion that may be lost in the cool, contemporary work of the older dance establishment.

      In all, the fest is continuing to take unexpected risks out at 41st and Oak, and that, of course, takes chutzpah.