Animals of Distinction's Heart as Arena conjures eerie world of sights and sounds

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      An Animals of Distinction production. At the Cultch Historic Theatre on Wednesday, October 5. Continues until October 8

      Dance artist Dana Gingras has proven in the past that she can create surreal sights: her Animals of Distinction shows have featured projected animation snaking out from performers’ limbs and giant break-dancing bunnies. But this time out, her new Heart as Arena mixes Lynchian images—think high heels, red-faux-fur rugs, and metallic heart-shaped balloons—with equally surreal sounds.

      The Vancouver dance renegade’s latest work employs dozens of vintage radios, ranging from thrift-store finds that dancers haul around and knob-twiddle throughout the show to the identical retro-’40s units that hang suspended above the stage in a huge, tilted oval formation. Together they transmit an eerie, often-unsettling score of static and song fragments—a kickass mess of everything from Bellini opera to a wailing flamenco cantaor to hyperspeed Asian pop. There’s a constant searching, a constant attempt to tune in to a nonexistent frequency that lends the show not only a sense of yearning but also of always being off-kilter.

      Amid all this fascinating noise (orchestrated by radio-transmission expert Anna Friz), dancers pair up, struggle, and fall apart. Heart as Arena is a perpetually moving tableau of couples clutched in impossibly tight slow dances, pumping each other’s hearts in true CPR-style, and dropping to spin around the floor. In her work with both the Holy Body Tattoo and Animals of Distinction, Gingras has become known more for the sheer pummelling force of her choreography than the detailed attention to steps, and Heart is no exception. The overall impression is of a sweaty blur of partnering and flailing, with occasional memorable images breaking through the visual and aural static: the sight of Gingras violently pushing down Masaharu Imazu and Shay Kuebler, over and over again like she’s stuck in a looped video; the ever-elastic Kuebler embracing the ethereal Sarah Doucet, then pulling apart in an electroconvulsive spaz-out; or, most bizarrely, Gingras awkwardly folding and refolding her legs like a kinky contortionist as she lies on a shaggy red carpet.

      The hookups are haunting and often zombielike: a slow, crazy dance where the charismatic Imazu turns slowly, grasping the upright leg of a doubled-over Amber Funk-Barton; or Kuebler struggling to hold a limp Gingras’s body upright, then dragging her around the stage like a rag doll. Amid all the sound and fury, the choreographer and her dancers are getting at some of the primal urges and struggles of relationships—the way we’re constantly trying to tune in, then losing each other’s signals.

      As always, the costumes (by Doucet) are a key part of the look. At first, the women wear jewel-tone satin blouses with vintage-lace slips peeking seductively out from their deeply slit skirts; later they move into gaudy, Solid Gold–era lame. Like the fragments of songs, the costumes live in an unidentifiable era—and the whole piece transports you into a strange, postmodern universe where time is as fluid as the radio transmissions are staticky.

      Just whether you enjoy that world depends on a few hard-to-define factors. Do you like being stranded in a place where you don’t have solid footing? Have you ever obsessively attempted to tune into a radio station just out of transmission range in the middle of the night? How many times have you watched Lost Highway? Those are just a few questions that might help you figure out if it’s worth it for you to take this strange and creepily atmospheric little trip.