Susie Ramsay on Mon, 27 Oct 1997 22:24:59 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> review of Dumb Type

Here are some impressions of the Dumb Type show "OR" which was
presented at the ARS Electronica Festival in September.

This is the short description of "OR" that appeared in the ARS programme:

"The dance performance by the group Dumb Type is about the state of "white
out" like in a blizzard, where you can't recognize anything, where you
don't know whether you are alive "OR" dead. This advanced technique of
combining electrical images, sounds, lighting aims at switching off any
intentions of grasping this fatal phenomenon and bringing you into the
"white out".

I entered the "OR" show (by the Japanese group Dumb Type) with my
choreographer contact lenses on, expecting to see a dance performance. And
it was, in so much as many of the gestures of the 8 performers were
dance-eee and the movement phrases were almost a gestural taxonomy of "new
dance" vocabularies, most identifiably, Cunning Ham with Limon Contact
Improvising over a bed of Bausch-Butoh. I say some, because other
vocabulary was more mime-like, other more theatre-like, etc. And no doubt
many references to Japanese or Asian dance and theatre traditions went
right over my head. Still, I was struck by how much the 90s
grab-bag-of-dance-techniques technique was so widespread. The sensibility
and movement vocabulary of the piece could have just as well been authored
by choreographers I went to school with in Montreal in the early 90s. (But
the issue of the globalization/homogenization of the new wave of dance
styles is on another menu.) As a "dance performance" I found it 
disppointing and very early on into the piece I decided to "see" the 
performance through different eyes. This helped greatly in my enjoyment 
and appreciation of it.

I also had expectations of the "technological" aspects because it was
within an electronic arts festival. I was very impressed with their
"advanced technique of combining electrical images, sounds, lighting", 
(although the "advanced technique" part makes me giggle a bit because it
sounds like an ad for a new anti-wrinkle cream). I'm not sure what they
mean by "advanced technique". But the special effects were stunning and
vital to the show. In fact they were the show.

First off, let me say that there was no real-time interactivity between the
performers and the media. So I was able to immediately pack away anxieties
about whether or not the interactive aspect was working and stop looking
for sensors. The stage was wide and deep and there were three huge screens
downstage with frontal video projection. The technological entrails were
hidden from view. It was a very slick, seamless, impeccable, professionally
executed show. The piece was divided into an eclectic collage of more than
a dozen sequences. The mood and tone of the different sequences were
expressed through a well-crafted and thoughtful integration of lights,
sounds and projections. For example, the first sequence consisted of a
white noise/white light hospital theme expressed through stark lighting,
projection of a rolling single vital sign line, the pounding organ doing a
duet with its beeping life support counterpart: a sole figure downstage,
motionless for about 7 minutes, bathing in the bigness of the media's
menacing repetition. Another sequence an hour into the show had a sole
figure downstage, motionless for about 7 minutes, bathing in a video
projection of a fast ride along a highway, tunnels included. We all thought
about Di. Another sequence had three women each undressing an apparently
dead man lying on medical examining tables. It was effectively perverse, I
seem to remember there was a kind of ritualistic torture going on, both
physical and psychological. My favorite part was when one of the men woke
up and started screaming without letting out a sound, the scream being
provided by the woman. It gave me goose pimples. (I read into it a
deliciously nasty tale of repressed wives giving over their lives to their
husbands' protagonism and in return getting to live out their husbands'
emotional lives, in the end trying to get bittersweet revenge when their
husbands die young of heart attacks because of societal pressures on them
to succeed). Another sequence which repeated itself several times with
slight variations was that of a performer posing in a bathing suit holding
a beach umbrella or ball who could only be seen when an intensely bright
paparazzi flash lit up the stage momentarily. Again, we all thought about

A Momix show I had seen about three years ago came to mind, I believe it
was called Passion. The association had something to do with the
combination of seductive high-tech elements and a conspicuous lack of a
choreography that could communicate. Special effects: 10, Choreography: 0.
Except that the Momix show was like a pleasant stroll through an
impressionist painting with domesticated animals doing foreseeable things
whereas "OR" had much more of an edge, the tone was bleaker, it had a
richly dark humour and the effects achieved were less predictable. For
example, the general impression of the soundscape was like taking a bike
ride through a fully operational steel factory, with towers of machinery
grinding hard next to your trembling, vibrating body as you try and keep
your balance. It was LOUD and I felt as though I was listening with my
ribcage more than with my ears. The lights had a similar effect on the
eyes. Car-crashingly intense. A full force industrial level assault. Sounds
violent I know but the experience was not foreign for most of us city
dwellers. And the effect of the media slipped over, around, under and
through any real or imagined boundary between performer and public and
rumbled through us in the audience. Technology you can taste. (I should add
that there were also more subtle uses of the technology, equally

People I talked to after the show seemed to agree on two things: one that
it was a special effects show but as far as special effects shows go, it
was great! And two, that it was basically without content and it didn't
matter. I would say that it didn't matter because the media was the content
and trite as that may sound, it demonstrates what really good media artists
can do. The Dumb Type artists used their media in very expressive ways,
communicating sensations and experiences, and they did it through a
skillful integration of "electrical images, sounds, lighting".

So if the late theatre pioneer Gordon Craig was around he might ask: did
the piece need real human bodies on stage as one of the elements of the
piece? Well, yes, but in a really twisted way. Going back to the dance
vocabulary, I would say that it was more utilitarian than anything else. In
other words, the movement and gestures in most sequences were at the
service of the rest of the elements. (side note: the movements were not
performed perfunctorily; the dancers were committed, focused, in sync with
each other and the media.) I don't
know if this was one of the choices of the DT artists or an inevitable
result, but the performers in the piece were acted upon, overwhelmed,
attacked, massaged forcefully, etc. by their electric, electrified,
electronic surroundings. Intentional or not, as a vision and an expression
of a shared experience of living in electronic environments, the piece was
powerful and effective. So yes, the human performers were needed but only
in this case to _contextualize the media_, to give meaning to the intensity
of the technological onslaught. For example, in one sequence, white strobe
lighting continues for minutes at a time and it's only really interesting
because several bodies are moving across the large stage: bodies moving
under strobes are hypnotizing to watch. The movements the performers were
doing didn't really matter but their presence as moving objects was
indispensable. Let's face it, humans are still the best 3-D movable screens
available and besides, we are well-trained on and off stage to follow the
timeline of technology.

As a choreographer, I believe that a strong backbone in the design of the
movements of the performers (whether physical theatre or mime or noh or
Graham) would have made the piece a real knock out. It almost would have
been too good to be true. And if on top of it, it had been interactive...
Now that more media artists are maturing and making expressive,
intelligent, engaging work, the doors should open up, not close, for the
possibilities of interesting dance performances with or without human

Susie Ramsay

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