Layers of subtext float around this performance called “Talk Show” by Ottawa’s collective (gulp). Independent dance artists are a rare and special breed in Ottawa – Alexis Kate Andrew and Elizabeth MacKinnon of collective (gulp) are no exception. Working together since 2002, their notable projects include the square zero independent dance festivals in 2004 and 2005. They focus particularly on improvisational dance, both artists having considerable study and experience in the field. “Talk Show”, their first evening-length work, delves into the contemporary intersection of public and private expression.
My experience begins virtually; before the performance event, I peruse the “Talk Show” blog, www.talkshow1.blogspot.com. Andrew and MacKinnon post regularly though not effusively, while designer and writer Katherine Gillieson, a collaborator, makes a few appearances. In chronicling the creative process, there are an abundance of links, and talk around buzz words, and exaggeration and manipulation. Is this part of the show?
This question follows me into the theatre. The technology is visible; a laptop and camera sit on a dimly lit table downstage left. TV show theme songs play in the background. I read the program notes thanking politicians, movie stars, and “the entire world of reality TV” for their endless inspiration. I must admit that I do not have a television and my experience of reality TV is entirely second hand. Perhaps because of the blog, perhaps because of the program notes, perhaps because of my notion of reality TV, I am expecting something over the top, something overt, something brash. What I experienced was a textured, slightly muted statement. To the closing question of “Talk Show”, “Were you even a little surprised by what happened out here tonight…?” Yes, I was.
Andrew blows in through the theatre doors, bubbly, welcoming. “You guys are going to be a great audience,” she affirms, running down onto the stage to shuffle about, grinning wildly at us. While they set up two plastic chairs on centre stage, MacKinnon appears, shy, uncomfortable, and makes an X with red tape downstage right. She joins Andrew, who is posing confidently on one of the chairs. After much hesitation, MacKinnon throws the empty chair back and lays on the floor, beginning a situational monologue about seeing a dance performance, “Yah, you ‘got it’”, “Are you feeling good about the way it happened?”, “Just take the good with the bad.” We hear, for the first time, “Were you even a little surprised by what happened out here tonight…?” Andrew’s confidence drops as she does, out of her chair and to the floor, and she is left alone twisting and slithering, looking for a way to feel comfortable.
MacKinnon returns with a brown cardboard box and pulls out a costume. As she changes into a skirt, cherry red heels and large bubble-wrap knee pads, Andrew sets up a microphone and begins an orgasmic play-by-play hockey commentary, the first compelling moment of the performance. Meanwhile, MacKinnon has begun moving to and from the red X, eyes closed, hesitating. The hockey climax over, Andrew melts into the audience and comments nonchalantly MacKinnon’s blind dance. “Are you even listening to yourself?” she asks.
They eventually both drift into the wings and begin pulling out brown cardboard boxes on which words are printed. Gliding happily into a choreographed Wheel of Fortune, they reveal phrases along the floor and stacked, building blocks of communication and social conventions: “Just honoured to be a nominee”, “Next time we will do better”, “Democracy has spoken”, “Leaving politics to spend more time with my family”, “110%”, “Giving it my all”, “We can still be friends”, “Sorry you were offended by my remarks”. Watching the choreography of construction and deconstruction is almost mesmerizing, as I become familiar with the game and start to imagine different combinations of words.
Finally, the boxes are stacked to create a screen and the energy drops considerably. MacKinnon heads to the tech table to cue a video, a mosaic of small headshots of both artists, quoting (I imagine) contestants and hosts of reality television shows. The short excerpts are looped and play simultaneously. I wonder if the rhythm is more important than the words, as I cannot discern much of what is said, and I am bothered by the poor sound quality.
Andrew wheels in a screen – a white paper hung on a coat rack. The chairs come back and the dancers enact a random interview, shifting poses manically. As recorded applause begins, Andrew, who was leaving, comes back for a satisfied bow. She greets the clapping repeatedly, loosing poise as it fades out and showers in randomly. The tin can resonance of the clapping sample does nothing to serve her performance. She fumbles, treading on tip toes, appearing willing and unwilling to be exposed. As with the earlier “dance” moments, I sense restraint. Their choices are committed but their physical commitment to moving in space is shy. Indeed, a feeling lingers throughout that both artists almost avoid dancing. As the solo dies down, the lights fade and MacKinnon, back at the tech table, aligns herself directly in front of the video camera. The live feed shows her eye, giant on the white screen behind Andrew. MacKinnon plays with the framing, she looks straight out, blinks, closes her eye. Andrew revisits her slithering solo from the beginning, both frightened and intrigued by the oversized voyeur. Connotations and references aside, the visual effect is quite beautiful.
The section bleeds away and the dancers exit upstage to enter again on all fours, heads butting the screen of boxes, digging and clawing them open. They unearth gloves and a dress made of bubble wrap, removing them from the boxes with their mouths. MacKinnon adorns herself in this delightful costume, courtesy of visual artist Uta Riccius. She dances about flamenco-style to a funny song as Andrew watches from among the boxes, squatting with a piece of fabric in her mouth, which she hands to her cohort mid-dance. The dance finished, Mackinnon drops her costume and stamps her feet, crushing the beautiful robe, providing much needed release. The audience perks up noticeably and she comes into the audience handing out quilt-size squares of bubble-wrap from a brown box to everyone. As the snapping begins in earnest, the dancers move to this rainy sound score. The movements are appropriately aerial, suspended and soft. Even after this section, the bubbles kept popping right until the audience went into the lobby at the end of performance – a tribute to compulsion.
A coat rack is wheeled out from the wings, on which hang two magnificent bubble-wrap frocks, complete with headdresses. Closing music plays and both contestants have a winning moment, the speechless, gasping, overwhelmed joy of being the best. They bow repeatedly and a large bubble-wrap bouquet is handed off between them. They smile, true Miss America style, and after basking in the moment they retreat, popping their dresses. One throws out the question of surprise before walking off stage. As I leave the theatre, there is a final pop as small bubble-wrap carpets have been laid out at the bottom of the stairs into the lobby.
I returned to the blog post-show and read the entries chronologically, complete with links to media including the “Washington Post”, Article 19, the CBC, the “Guardian”, flikr, “The Globe and Mail”, Unspeak (another blog) and the Urban Dictionary. It is distinctive for a dance show to leave a trace like this one. I find it funny to read this critical take on a particular realm of expression (blogging) that comments through one of the key vehicles of this expression.
I am happy to consider the blog as part of the show, a derivative, a springboard for contemplation beyond the performance event. The questions and statements online and onstage about public and private personae, representation and television, point in a relevant direction. Reality television has expanded the boundaries of the performance event to include anything and collective (gulp) reflected this intelligently. However, the embodiment of the performance lacked the verve of the written reflections. I was interested but not drawn in. I was delighted by the bubble-wrap art objects, the sexual hockey commentary and the all-seeing eye, but the drabness of the transitions broke what little momentum there was. The reluctance of the performers to dance big and bold left me unsatisfied. I remain intrigued by the work, I am hungry for more and wonder what other platforms collective (gulp) might explore.