Chutzpah! Festival: Prisoner’s story informed Shay Kuebler’s sense of the Momentum of Isolation

The Vancouver choreographer's timely and ambitious production looks at loneliness from several perspectives

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      Choreographer and dancer Shay Kuebler recognizes the importance of talking about social isolation.

      “Cases of anxiety and depression are increasing, especially in the youth,” Kuebler told the Straight by phone. “It’s a big issue.”

      This didn’t just cross his mind during the pandemic. In fact, Kuebler had been working on a theatrical dance piece about social isolation ever since he read about the British government appointing a minister for loneliness back in 2018.

      In November, his company, Radical System Art/Shay Kuebler, will premiere the completed piece, Momentum of Isolation, at the The Chutzpah! Festival: The Lisa Nemetz Festival of International Jewish Performing Arts.

      In researching the work, Kuebler read Solitary, an autobiography by former prisoner Albert Woodfox chronicling his years of solitary confinement for a crime that he didn’t commit. This taught Kuebler about a “subreality” that results from being alone for extended periods.

      Woodfox’s story also inspired the character that he plays in Momentum of Isolation.

      “One of the big aspects of his arc as a character is to talk about how isolation really can destroy your sense of reality,” Kuebler said.

      Even though the topic is extremely serious, Kuebler said that he has still injected some satirical elements into the production. After all, it wouldn’t be a Kuebler show without some sort of humorous twist.

      For example, there’s one section exploring how people portray themselves online and how that can create a false sense of who they actually are.

      “I’m finding a fun way to talk about it without being too on the nose and too direct,” Kuebler said.

      Sarah Hutton and Aiden Cass are two of several other performers in Momentum of Isolation.
      David Cooper

      He also described Momentum of Isolation as “fairly episodic”.

      “I really distill this idea of both physical and social isolation in the work,” Kuebler explained. “And the younger performers and ensemble performers are taking a number of different ideas around isolation and loneliness for younger generations.”

      The show includes a great deal of physical theatre, he noted. Kuebler also emphasized that the production is, at times, driven more by a theatrical and dramatic purpose than a dance aesthetic.

      “The movement is derived from what’s important thematically,” he said. “It’s very physical and dynamic.”

      Kuebler presented the first chapter of this show in 2020 as solo performances on Zoom. That was followed by a second chapter at the 2021 Dancing on the Edge Festival.

      This year, the piece was completed following a multiweek residency at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre. In April 2022, he’s planning on taking Momentum of Isolation to Europe, followed by a national tour across Canada.

      He feels that some weight has been taken off both his and festival organizers’ shoulders with the recent lifting of capacity limits at live events in B.C. (Anyone who wants to attend the show will have to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19.)

      “I do believe that when we get it out in front of audiences and people see it, I think it will have a pretty long life,” Kuebler said.

      Video: Watch the trailer for the Chutzpah! Festival.