Digital Folk plays games far beyond the video console

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      It was the kind of assignment that every Xbox–fixated 12-year-old would love to receive: play video games for eight hours a day, six days a week.

      But choreographer James Gnam was asking 11 adult dancers to take on the task as part of his new show Digital Folk. He needed them to fully understand the way games like Rock Band and Just Dance function. And he recognized that, for the artists, it would be a struggle.

      “I had to say, ‘Okay. This is work. Let’s approach it like any other dance process,’’’ Gnam says, relaxing in the courtyard outside SFU Woodward’s, where the team has been rehearsing. “They were spending eight hours a day kind of breaking the thing that they loved. We discovered the dance games have almost nothing to do with what we would consider dance practice.”

      Gnam, the co–artistic director of plastic orchid factory (with his wife, Natalie LeFebvre Gnam), is talking about the genesis of Digital Folk, a piece that’s an immersive, multimedia dance show, concert, and costume party that mimics and comments on the effect of certain video games.

      The ambitious new work had its genesis as Gnam watched his younger sibling (fellow dancer Connor Gnam) and niece. “I remember my brother and his friends playing Rock Band—and really, really virtuosically. But none of them could play a real instrument. So there was this disconnect,” Gnam says. “Then I remember watching my niece when she was a teenager and she and her friends would gather around the TV and play Just Dance—learning dance from a TV or a gaming console. They were completely disconnected from the experience of dancing. But they were dancing!

      “Every generation has songs and dances—it’s the glue that binds you together. But for the first time, here’s a generation for whom all those songs and dances come through this TV. I was like, ‘This is some arrested folk practice! Is this their folk culture?’ ”

      Gnam knew he wanted to address the idea with a dance work, but he had no idea, at first, what it might look like. Hence, the heavy-duty, eye-wearying research into the most popular performance games. He and his crew were fascinated to discover that Just Dance, built on copying moves shown on-screen, removed them from what they knew as their chosen art form—from the ability to feel what’s happening or even to remember the steps after a number is done. Many in his crew play instruments, as goes Gnam, and here too the experience was “vacuous”: with games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, “it was about pushing buttons at the right time,” he explains.

      The bigger discovery was that, instead of connecting a community in the way that songs and dance have done in the past, the games seemed to isolate poeple.

      In the studio, Gnam and his artists set about staging a series of events that were broken down into “easily digestible” parts. “We said, ‘How do we build a dance piece that embraces dysfunction and brokenness?’ ” Gnam explains. “We realized the dances themselves had to function as games.”

      Digital Folk's fake band the Sally Field Project, with Diego Romero, Bevin Poole, and James Gnam (from left).
      Chris Randle

      If all of this is starting to sound heavy, it most definitely does not play out that way—a fact that becomes obvious when Gnam guides the Straight through the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, where audience members will enter through a kitschily wallpapered hallway, help themselves to costumes inspired by the wildly popular fantasy computer game Zelda, and find a place to sit or stand on playful squares of melamine and fake grass taped to the floor. The design comes courtesy of Vancouver visual artist Natalie Purschwitz, who has draped the walls with patchworks—one fashioned out of old rock T-shirts—that act as screens for video and backdrops for the ever-changing activity. Against one wall are a fake drum kit and guitars (the kind used in video games), which the performers will play (as the fake band the Sally Field Project) during the show. Lighting designer James Proudfoot has come up with clever spotlighting—sometimes with swag lampshades—and a few garish rock-concert touches. Says Gnam: “We realized that rock ’n’ roll lighting design is a part of our aesthetic, and we realized we needed to not tiptoe in, but dive in.”

      Gnam says the design of the space is supposed to mix a feeling of both the home and the theatre.

      In rehearsal, the dancers, wearing runners, play a sort of game of call and response, finding a partner and following them through the room, twisting, crawling, and turning up over risers and across the floor.

      There’s a lot of fun in the piece. Gnam describes the project, easily the biggest the company has taken on since launching in 2008, in part as a party for the small audiences of 50 or so. But a sense of anxiety, urgency, and sadness runs beneath it. “It’s melancholy, but not in a way that hurts,” Gnam says, before adding: “It’s fun and irreverent and kind of sad. If Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman coauthored a dance-theatre piece, it might look like this.

      “Beneath it are some really profound questions about how we’re fundamentally changing community,” he continues. In other words, it’s not just dance—and not Just Dance.

      Digital Folk takes place next Wednesday to Sunday (September 21 to 25) at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.