Propelled by skittery electro beats, tap master Danny Nielsen is hoofing it in a perfect circle around a throbbing mass of dancers. He sends waves of movement through them with each click of his feet.
Are they the eye of some cyclone he’s creating? Is he an electron revolving around a supercharged nucleus?
These are just two of the ideas that come to mind while watching rehearsals for local dancer-choreographer Shay Kuebler’s complex, breathless new Telemetry at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. The full-evening work, developed from a short he showed at the Chutzpah Festival last year, is set to premiere at this year’s event.
After the sweat-soaked run-through, Kuebler compares the circular setup to a satellite dish or some kind of relay system. “There’s never an endpoint; there’s constant feedback,” he tells the Straight with enthusiasm at a café near the centre. “There are moments when Danny is causing something and the dancers are affected, and then when dancers are causing something and there’s an effect.…Danny is a source of energy and connecting, but as much as they’re receiving they’re always transmitting.
“It’s almost like echolocation: he’s sending sound into the space and that’s bouncing off us and we’re sending it back.”
It helps to know the genesis of the title. Kuebler discovered the term telemetry a few years back when he was in Glasgow and a friend was telling him about how he would use portable radio transmitter-receivers to track wolves in the wild. Kuebler instantly saw how he could apply that idea to dance, in which bodies are always receiving and passing on information—and also how it might offer a deeper metaphor for life itself.
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s literally the human body,’ and I thought about how our history and memory affect us, all our first-person experiences,” he says. “Our bodies carry all this energy and information we’re not aware of.”
It’s clear that Telemetry is a bold departure for one of Vancouver’s most exciting choreographers. The Radical System Art founder is known for an insanely cool hybrid of street and contemporary dance, martial arts, and other popular forms, but his work has always had a more narrative, theatrical feel, often incorporating sociopolitical messages. In Karoshi, he took on the work-till-you-die culture of Japan; in the multimedia Glory, he tackled the rising amount of violence in our world. Now, at 33, Kuebler is going more about pure movement, his various influences converging like the wires of a buzzing hydro station.
Interestingly, the new piece has taken him back to tap, a form he started out in as a boy. It played perfectly into the idea of telemetry. “Tap really embodies sound. There’s really no way to bullshit tap,” he says. “You literally can hear and feel what they are doing. It’s very pure.”
Tap brought an element of improvisation into the work as well, one that’s been eagerly adopted by standout dancers Tyler Layton-Olson, Lexi Vajda, Nicholas Lydiate, Maxine Chadburn, and Hayden Fong, not to mention the hyperenergized Kuebler himself.
“It starts sort of with this energy of life, and then things degrade and become less clear, and that speaks to aging and memory—the fact that we’re always chasing time…There’s no unison till the end of the piece,” he says of the individual riffing that happens within the show’s structure. “It’s really about how you have to go through chaos to be able to find a sense of cohesion.
“I love my dancers because they can do some crazy, raw things that don’t get lost in some aesthetic purpose,” he adds. “I’m asking so much of my dancers.”
Tap virtuoso Nielsen also has become a central force, triggering everything from lights to multiple video projections to sound with his foot-generated rhythms. Kuebler, who’s orchestrated much of this and composed the soundscape, figures 80 percent of the multimedia show now happens live.
“It’s raised the stakes, but it’s given us a huge amount of potential,” he admits with a wide smile. “I’m scared, too. There’s fear in the unknown. But it’s good to be scared.”