A plastic orchid factory production. At SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Wednesday, September 21. Continues until September 25
If folk dances reflect the life and culture of a people, what will be our folk dance?
In an immersive and interactive new dance work-meets-installation, James Gnam and collaborators are exploring how video-game culture and technology might shape today’s dance.
Digital Folk is hosted in the basement theatre at SFU Woodward’s. Walking from the dimly lit hallway into the vibrant performance space was like stepping into an exclusive rave-inspired dance party—“exclusive” because it was tucked away and not crowded, and also because it was such a unique world created by designer Natalie Purschwitz and lighting designer James Proudfoot.
Every detail was injected with colour and the occasional dash of sparkle.
Audience members first entered through the costume corridor, where accessories and garments hang for the taking.The space fits up to 55 audience members, all dressed up next to the performers (Gnam, Bevin Poole Leinweber, Vanessa Goodman, Natalie LeFebvre Gnam, Jane Osborne, Diego Romer, Lexi Vajda, and SFU students Shion Carter, Kayla DeVos, Rachel Helten, Hannah Jackson, and Rachel Silver). By the time I arrived, there were only a few pieces left. Dancer walked up to me with a purple sash that could be worn like an apron or a cape and said: “Wear it however makes you feel great.”
Around the corner, the actual performance space was one big, multidimensional room. In Purschwitz’s world, quilts hung as projection screens and white cardboard boxes created mountainous landscapes. Lights with lampshades descended from the ceiling and cast a warm glow, while one giant two-tiered block marked the middle of the space. A stage for video-game dancing and a stage for a video-game band sat off to the sides.
The floor was not exempt from the party: it had squares of marble-coloured marley flooring taped in place with bright colours and a couple of strips of AstroTurf, raising further questions about where in the world this scene might be.
The top of Digital Folk is a soft start. Performers blend in with the audience, some people playing the Just Dance video game, others greeting the ongoing flow of new visitors to the space. At one point, though, I noticed LeFebvre Gnam standing under a spotlight, eyes shut, softly moving through a sensorial phrase. Soon the rest of the performers, all located throughout the space, were doing the same.
LeFebvre Gnam, who is artistic producer of the project, appeared to lead transitions more than once. Later in the work, she interrupted the band (the Sally Field Project, a band of pretenders, we’re told) to perform a stationary gestural phrase punctuated with French. Spoken text came in again, with Romer, Goodman, and Jackson joining in with English, Spanish, and Japanese, each reciting bits of narration from the video game Zelda. (The fantasy-adventure game influenced the scene and costume palette.)
Scenes blended and the audience was free to move around. The dancers’ tone dipped in and out of more outward projection, mirroring partners in space, to introspection. At one point, all of the performers took out their phones (we were also encouraged to use ours) and attempted to mimic what looked like a traditional Eastern European folk dance. It had most effect when a small group repeated the act later, calling out which second of the video to fast forward to. Inevitably, each dancer hit play on his or her own phone at a different time, staggering their attempts to copy the video. In a world where it’s possible to all see the same video, we’re still never going to interpret what is being communicated in the same way.
Digital Folk runs three times in one evening, technically starting on the hour, but the end of the work and its new beginning bleed. The performers take us on a journey of interpretation and embodiment, fully dedicated to their own tasks while enveloping the audience in a paradoxical, at times ironic, installation.
The onslaught of scenes settled for me in one final moment when the Just Dance video game replayed a previous scene featuring Goodman and a bunch of the audience dancing along behind her. The replay was in slow motion to the sounds of Poole Leinweber stroking a banjo, singing a soft folk tune, as everyone watched and listened. It was a moment to see how everyone had come together and what had been shared.
In an age where so many people do exist in relative isolation, engaging with the world through technology, Digital Folk is a flash of energy—energy that dance, song, and community so uniquely extract.