There are probably more than eight ways to either embrace or avoid Mara, the traditional Buddhist demon of temptation and chaos. William Yong and his company Zata Omm allude to at least that many in a new full-length work about the forces that lead us off the path to enlightenment. Chief among them might be technology, that very contemporary response to almost every human failing and foible. Eight Ways is simultaneously a warning and a wonder in that regard.
Yong’s ode to distraction begins with a prologue of sorts in which two figures — one in obscuring hazmat garb, the other in gauze wrappings and a skin-like mask — slowly interact in front of a stage-wide screen. A mesmerizing pattern of animated tree branches slowly unscrolls on the screen behind them. A mood is set — magical; a pace established — measured. With few exceptions, neither really wavers over the course of the next hour.
Yong adheres tightly to the theme of his work – the sometimes halting or confusing search for meaning in the modern world. An introductory sequence intersperses video messages from a dog/god figure with an overview of a movement vocabulary performed by Yong’s company with unrushed elegant attack. Yong and his dancers (Kate Franklin, Heather Berry-MacPhail, Ericka-Leigh Howard, Nicholas Melymuk) are all striking performers, and Yong’s dances are peppered with athletic and unusual balances and lifts. The work alludes, both metaphorically and directly, to a plethora of devices and pastimes, from social networking sites such as chat roulette and Facebook to computer tablets and video games. Following one of these ensemble dances, Yong is left alone, speaking into a round moon-like light fixture at the side of the stage: “I want to speak to God, Yahweh … Buddha, whatever — but I can’t clear my mind.” There is something so familiar about this lament.
Despite the serious theme, Eight Ways is laced with absurdist humour, sometimes broad, and sometimes so subtle it barely registers. One clever duet hinges on the idea of a digital navigation device leading the way to Nirvana. If you can make out what the disembodied GPS voice is actually saying — “Just drive past greed” — the concept and its execution is delightfully hilarious. But on the evening I attended at least, by the time the dance ended with, “I am sorry you have not reached your destination. Please try again later,” I wasn’t at all sure that the audience was getting it based on their lack of response.
Much more direct in effect was a section where three dancers mime walking along a path with the assistance of some masterful lighting and projections from designers Rebecca Picherack and Elysha Poirier. The three run, carry each other, and persevere — heading into the light, towards the audience. Patterns of light and shadow swirl around them on the ground. Colours, symbols, animal shapes, animated eyes and snakes cross their path. As the exhausted travellers get closer to their destination (Enlightenment? Civilization? Safety?), the patterns become mandala-like and the path twists and turns but remains delineated. This scene is just terrific — near perfect in concept and execution. And there are other sections of the production that work equally well, most notably the closing sequence in which the dancers each inhabit individual circles of light within a blue sea of gently crashing waves. Their bodies collapse in sleep (or death) and the last woman standing inhales something (their souls?) from their mouths. She, in turn, breathes that something out as dancing animations that gambol and whirl around her. The lights go down on her laughter at the cosmic joke of it all as the projected animation/spirits play around her.
Attention has clearly been paid to the balance of human to technological values in this work. Some of the effects may temporarily overwhelm but they are used judiciously overall (for my taste at least; others in the audience might find it tech-heavy) and are people-scaled. By that I mean that they always refer to the human beings onstage. Yong and his team may not always get it right, but it’s impossible not to appreciate the care that they have put into that particular balancing act. I’ve seen lots of work in recent years that failed to.
Technology can be a demon. It generally extracts a price for whatever magic it supplies. It’s needy and greedy and so it often ends up defining content as everyone races towards the inevitable deadline of opening night. Or, as McLuhan put it a long time ago now — the medium becomes the message. And so I did catch myself yearning for a little more chaos with this show — I wanted a bit less pacing, a bit more frenetic energy, some extreme physicality. I wanted to see what these skilled human bodies could do when not constrained by cues and costumes and cables and … stuff. Even the most daring segments of the dance felt imprisoned, fettered somehow. On paper this might have seemed appropriate for, as one striking example, the duet for Berry-MacPhail and Melymuk in which the petite Berry-MacPhail is wrapped in cables, her arms loosely pinned to her sides, the cables acting as handles by which the much larger Melymuk could carry and lift her. But even here, the movement quality was so measured, so lacking in loft that it sapped much of the potential dark energy of the dance. I was frequently frustrated by this lack of freedom and flow in the dancing (not so much in a choreographic sense but more in a temporal sense). Oddly, this feature of the movement was less evident when Yong himself was performing. I’m not sure what was going on or if it bothered anyone else but I’ll suggest that the sophisticated tech dimension of the production might have contrived to inhibit its dynamics and leave it at that.
That’s more of an observation than a criticism of an ambitious work that amply delivers both a beautiful caution and an unsettling message of qualified hope.