PuSh Fest: It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend is rapturous

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      A Voetvolk production, presented by the Dance Centre and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Thursday, January 22. Continues until January 24

      Magnetic Belgian dance-theatre artist Lisbeth Gruwez grips your attention like an old-style preacher working a revival tent—and that’s fitting, considering her soundtrack is a sermon by ’80s televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, remixed almost, but not quite, beyond intelligibility.

      The result is a show that’s as strange as it is mesmerizing—one that slyly deconstructs the way speechmakers manipulate their audiences. Building to a bizarre, ecstatic state, it’s a trip that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

      Gruwez appears on a bare stage in a stark, rectangular spotlight. She looks strikingly androgynous, wearing a men’s dress shirt and slacks with Bible-belt–issue black oxfords. Her gaze remains fixed intently on the people watching her. In the opening moments there is little sound; the odd piano plink, eventually met with the whiplash of a discombobulated voice, sampled by sound designer-composer Maarten Van Cauwenberghe beyond recognition. Gruwez is calm, using stiffened hands the way an orator might, pressing the air down in front of her, then raising her arm to accentuate a beat of noise. Ever so slowly, the sounds build—adding strings along with that constant, David Lynch–ian, windlike roar—and so do the movements. Gruwez finds a weird flow of gestures that seem alien and familiar all at once. The latter sensation comes from the fact that she has obviously studied the physical language of presidents, dictators, and preachers in obsessive detail, reorganizing the rigid hand movements and wide stances into a language all its own. The dancer’s utter, meticulous control and extreme focus are arresting.

      By the time the words of the soundtrack start to make sense—the text of the title, drawn from the Swaggart sermon, builds into a kind of drawling chorus that his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis could have turned into a song—they seem to hold heavy, albeit ironic, meaning. Her commentary on the power of words, and how they’re wielded, is timely, thought-provoking, and just a tiny bit scary.

      What happens in the final moments is probably best left to the experience: suffice it to say Gruwez, driven by the energy of the audience, takes things to a whole other, trancelike level.

      I’m not sure you’ll feel like you’ve been saved, exactly, but with the connection that’s built between one artist on-stage and her audience, this stripped-down PuSh Festival find gets pretty damn close to rapture.

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