You’ve heard of surround sound; now try to imagine it along with surround movement and visual art. That’s the kind of immersive experience one of the world’s hottest new dance troupes is bringing to a Vancouver nightclub in what could be the season’s coolest and most unexpected show. In Backstage, Israel’s Maria Kong invades the Red Room Ultra Bar with the electric guitars of a live rock band, dancers dressed as sirens, pirates, and sailors in every corner, and dynamic digital projections.
Founded in 2008 by four dancers out of Israel’s famed Batsheva Dance Company, Maria Kong has been out to upend traditional notions of dance from the very beginning. Its artists, who include a technology maestro and music composer, wanted to find ways to reach today’s ultrawired audience.
“We initially wanted to create experiences, whether in galleries or off-stage or on-stage,” explains the effervescent company member Talia Landa, a Batsheva alumna whose enthusiasm for her project crackles over the phone from Tel Aviv. “We had a big curiosity about enhancing the audience performance experience. It was not just about performing anymore; it was about, Who is the audience today?
“With all these smartphones, everybody wants to be connected immediately. They want to have a more immediate experience,” she continues. “So you had to intensify what was happening on-stage. Our idea was always to move together with people. You can see people are hungry to hear your heartbeat.”
The approach has paid off. Today, on top of a steady output of multimedia productions, the company throws everything from private events in museums and galleries to art parties, called Mi Casa Su Casa, where performers from a range of disciplines put on different shows every five minutes around a space.
Maria Kong bases a lot of its experimentation in the Lab, the digital studio in Tel Aviv where it has developed animation and 3-D graphics, as well as inventions like the wireless, technology-activating gloves that caused such buzzworthy effects in its work Open Source.
The high-tech bent is a long way from Batsheva, a company known for the explosive, instinct-based gaga movement its legendary founder, Ohad Naharin, was exploring around the time Landa danced with the company.
But perhaps its biggest influence on the founders of Maria Kong, Landa says, was in the mindset they developed.
“Batsheva, under Ohad, is the most professional place you can be. And to develop and grow up there, and perform all over the world with the most professional teams—that plants the seeds of noncompromising and going in your own direction,” Landa says.
Another of the company’s influences comes more locally: Ori Ben Shabat, the digital artist who heads up Maria Kong’s visual effects and technology, attended Vancouver Film School. As for Maria Kong’s dancers, they’re an international mix of people from Japan, Russia, Israel, and Brazil.
Just how do so many creative voices come together on a single piece of art? Landa says the group is bonded by a sense of purpose and long-time friendships.
“If you’re looking to create 360-degree experiences, you better have a team that can look at it from different angles,” says Landa. “You can take your ego and eat it for lunch. Yes, we argue in order to find the solution and we know each other so well. When you’re all off-the-wall it seems like you’re standing straight.”
Bringing such a big group halfway around the world is no easy matter, of course. The Chutzpah Festival’s Mary-Louise Albert first spotted the innovators at the International Exposure showcase in Tel Aviv. She and her team are bringing 14 of them here for the Backstage shows as part of the fest—Maria Kong’s first time to perform in North America. Landa, whose own parents hail from Saskatchewan and Alberta, says the troupe members, all of whom are busy with other projects, have cleared their slates to make the journey possible.
She doesn’t want to give away too much to audiences about Backstage; the element of surprise around every corner is part of a Maria Kong show’s appeal. Landa describes the sea-themed work as a ride on the merry waves, a magical, surreal adventure that travels into the “backstage of our minds”.
“There’s a real yin-yang of forces: men, women, age, life, and it’s full-on music you can enjoy just looking at it and having a beer,” Landa allows. “We say grab a beer and change your view; you might be missing something. You don’t have to be strapped into your seat and just watch.
“People want to be able to choose what they want to look at. We do move them around the space, but still you’re free to change your point of view.”
In the end, Landa says with a laugh, the best advice might just be to wear comfortable shoes to the Red Room. “You don’t have to like dance to love it. There’s movement everywhere and all the arts. There are no boundaries anymore between the performer and audience. Movement knows no borders, no passports to come all the way to Canada.”
Maria Kong presents Backstage from February 19 to 22 at the Red Room Ultra Bar as part of the Chutzpah Festival.