Individuality, collective, surveillance, society: With FIRST/LAST, Shay Kuebler explores the rhythm of tension

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      Shay Kuebler has always been fascinated with tension. Specifically, the meeting point of tradition and modernity. In Karoshi, for example, the first full-length work the Vancouver-based dance artist, director, and choreographer created in 2011, he zeroed in on corporate life and how it ties into the idea of personal success.

      Now, for his newest piece, FIRST/LAST, Kuebler explores the tension between the individual and the group, and humanity’s necessity for the push and pull of both.

      Working with large ensembles—in this case, 20 dancers—always prompts Kuebler to consider how their energies influence each other, he tells the Straight. “I’ve done a lot of reading around morality, and where we come up with this set of values or virtues, and where does it baseline from? One of the theories is that it came from us having to coexist in groups, for us to create these shared narratives and stories. And, in these stories, we build these moral truths.” 

      This is his first commission with Ballet BC, produced for HORIZON/S, the company’s second program of its 2022-23 season. Kuebler has been in conversation with Ballet BC about working together for some time. The ball finally started rolling a couple of years ago, when artistic director Medhi Walerski watched a solo performance Kuebler did called #DanceForth Feasting on Famine. A digital initiative between Kuebler’s Radical System Art and the National Arts Centre, the work examined hyper-masculinity, bodybuilding, and addiction, combining dance with physical theatre.

      Kuebler is renowned for using different elements of movement to create a physical expression that’s lyrical and visceral.

      When choreographing FIRST/LAST, he sought to harness individual strengths in a way that would build a group language and resonate with the overall theme of the piece. He took inspiration from the dancers’ classical ballet training—their extensions, long lines, capacities for opening up their bodies—as well as their different technical backgrounds and personal interests, ranging from hip-hop to Shaolin kung fu. Those passions are spotlighted in small solos that each dancer helped develop themselves, as well as in the group choreography, where Kuebler provided direction to create movement that is uniform but not in unison.

      “I think we are a collection of our experiences,” he says. “That really is what makes us individuals.”

      He adds: “When I’m in the room with them [the dancers], I’m almost always trying to dig towards a physical theatre expression, where the theme that we’re working with, the idea, the character choices, that’s the driver. And then whatever movement choices come out of that—that, to me, is valuable. So, I kind of try to approach it from the inside out.”

      FIRST/LAST is scored to G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, the latest effort from Montreal industrial postrockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The music—soundscapes marked by sawing strings, ghostly waves of distortion, and orchestral swells of noise—was another crucial element of the piece for Kuebler. He had a previous connection with the band from performing in the Holy Body Tattoo’s monumental back in 2016 (Kuebler as a dancer in the show, Godspeed! playing live onstage) and was thrilled when the group agreed to lend its music for FIRST/LAST.

      The score injects an epic and postmodern energy into the piece. It also feeds into the concept of Rob Sondergaard’s stage design, with a moving wall of light that references surveillance in modern society.

      Kuebler hopes the combination of conceptual elements incites conversation in the audience—and perhaps even acts as a mirror to them.

      “The stage design has some really interesting visual concepts about technology and this idea of being watched and observed and collected,” he says. “I try to plant these windows into the piece, where somebody sees it and they’re like, ‘Oh, I totally see this person as this person in my life.’ I just want to drop in little access points, where it’s either something that’s a moment they’ll remember and talk about after the show, or it’s a moment that brings them further into the show.

      “I think that’s the theatre approach that I want to bring to the audience,” Kuebler continues. “You know, that this work has some connection to us, just as people: the way that they’re dressed, the way that they’re moving around onstage at certain moments. You can feel like these are people that are making their way through rush hour traffic, or it’s through the grind of 9 to 5. I think those are the things I hope have creative impacts.” 

      Ballet BC’s HORIZON/S is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from March 16-18.