Dancing on the Edge: Pandemic enables Vancouver choreographer Shay Kuebler to explore loneliness

His history as a martial artist, theatre performer, and hip-hop and tap dancer helps explain why his work has so much physicality and theatricality

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      Vancouver dance artist Shay Kuebler took notice when former British prime minister Theresa May appointed a “minister for loneliness” in 2018.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, the veteran choreographer and dancer said that the title, minister of loneliness, sounded so surreal to him.

      But he soon learned that social isolation and loneliness were two of the leading causes of disease in the U.K. As he studied this issue more deeply, he realized that it would be a worthwhile focus for a dance project, which he has called M.O.I. - Momentum of Isolation. It will have its B.C. premiere as a 45-minute work-in-progress at the Dancing on the Edge Festival.

      “I knew that it was a really important topic to talk about,” Kuebler told the Straight by phone. “Also, I felt like it’s accessible to almost all of us in some way.

      "There are definitely different layers," he continued. "All I’m going to do is try to bring a perspective that I have and try to bring a perspective that my artists have.”

      It will be presented live and online, and each performance will include eight dancers, including Kuebler. He has been working with these artists for the past two or three years with his company, Radical System Art. The pandemic offered plenty of time for online research, enabling the entire company to watch videos and read up on different aspects of loneliness.

      Solos in the show will explore the experience of social isolation from various perspectives. According to Kuebler, group performances act as a counterpoint.

      “They framework reasons and questions of why these solos or why these ideas or why isolation and loneliness can happen,” he said. “It’s actually quite a big ensemble piece.”

      Radical System Art director and choreographer Shay Kuebler likes injecting some satire into his shows.
      David Cooper

      Before Kuebler became one of Vancouver’s marquee contemporary dancers, he was a martial-arts and theatre artist, as well as a tap and hip-hop dancer. He said that this explains why his work is often so imbued with so much physicality and theatricality.

      He’s also a big fan of satire because he thinks it’s a “really important tool to talk about serious topics”. In addition, he believes that satire plays with the expectations of audiences.

      So, is there room for satire in a work-in-progress focusing on loneliness and isolation?

      “I grew up watching lots of standup comedy,” Kuebler replied. “I always felt that comedy was a great vehicle at times to bring forward things that we need to have conversations around. I think it just has to be done delicately—strategically—you know. Of course, the whole show is not a comedy show.”

      He also sees connections between social isolation, the digital world, and the rise of artificial intelligence. According to Kuebler, these themes will play out in the imagery of the show, which will be presented in an episodic format.

      “My character, specifically, has a very clear through line, and that’s really important,” Kuebler explained. “I think it helps bookend…these episodes in the work.”