Performance available online as of March 23, 2020.
Zata Omm conjures a futuristic, technological Eden, but the outcome is far from idyllic.
It’s strange to experience a dance performance digitally only: to pause at a striking moment, to rewind and re-watch it like a sitcom. It often feels that being live, immediate and temporary is intrinsic to dance’s impact. But it’s uniquely appropriate that Zata Omm’s Eden Planted, which premiered February 5 in Toronto as part of DanceWorks’ 2019/20 season, has been posted online in its entirety. The piece imagines humanity’s return to paradise through a future that fuses evolution with technological advancement. Watching Eden Planted on a screen, I find it hard to not feel implicated in its vision.
This Eden is empty. The set (by the artistic director and choreographer, William Yong, with consultation by Echo Zhou) impressively transforms the bricked Harbourfront Centre Theatre into something more sterile, with towering white panels that also act as a screen for video projections (designed by Afaq Ahmed Karadia). Imagery of skulls and circuitry, wave functions and grids prepare the audience to consider engineered structures and their components, and more specifically the body’s intersection with technology.
This concern is most successfully explored through abstraction; it feels somewhat prop-like when the performance incorporates self-aware sci-fi signifiers, modifying the body literally in once instance with metal stilts. It is Yong’s expressive choreography — particularly his textured ensemble work — that capably evokes a range of bodily possibility and relations. With precision, the dancers thrust limbs and punctuate beats, approaching artificial perfection (and reminding the audience that dancers’ bodies are already highly engineered). Interaction between their rigid bodies offers only a replica of intimacy, a loss that seems a consequence of gained efficiency. Elsewhere, repetition and synchronized movement feel ritualistic, suggesting something human and communal. The contrast is striking, and music (by Joshua DePerry) appropriately ranges from an ambient, industrial drone to moments of spare melody.
Amid the ensemble cast of dancers, Naishi Wang stands out. He adds a personal, emotive charge, whether he’s twitching over a stuttering vocal track, energetically dancing while bathed in blue light or seemingly in self-conflict, pressing his hands into his face and body in a compelling final solo.
The piece maintains a precarious tone throughout, established in part by the frequency with which dancers collide with the floor. In one scene, the group huddles together, gently swaying, as one dancer almost imperceptibly lifts himself off the floor, balancing on the others — only to drop suddenly. After a noticeable pause, the remaining dancers surround him and roll his body around the stage. Are they caring for him? Putting him in motion again? Or is he now marked as something strange and separate? This ambiguity is a consequence of Yong’s vision: technological Eden is not entirely idyllic.
In moments of jerky movement in which the body seems to malfunction or collapse, the choreography poses a question about sustainability. Eden suggests an achievement of perfection: an arrival, a completion. But Yong complicates the idea of a perfect technological utopia by emphasizing the process of striving, advancing, becoming. When discussing the show, Yong says, “In science, everything that is possible is inevitable.” It’s a terrifying, fascinating statement, suggesting both predetermination and complete possibility. The future could be anything. It will arrive, soon. Eden Planted is one inventive way of confronting what it could be.