Silhouettes. Shadows. Peepholes. Clothing. Media. Language. The objects which frame our perceptions of the world are countless and often hidden from or by us. In his simply titled “Frames”, William Yong (Zata Omm Dance Projects) dares to explore the psychology behind our reference points, the frequency at which we rely on them for our perceptions of what is real, and finally, how they might be challenged. Set to a mystical score by Andrea Rocca, and animated with an intelligent media display by Elysha Poirier, Yong moves us through varying degrees of perception and restriction, compelling us to question why we accept our learned (and often limited) interpretations of reality, our bodies, our histories and the objects we employ.
During this seventy-five-minute work for five dancers (Michelle Cheung, Kate Franklin, Nicholas Melymuk, Melissa Morris and Yong), I was struck by a smattering of moments that best articulated Yong’s exploration of perception. The piece begins with the silhouetted cast quietly edging toward us in a row. A soundtrack of human breathing pervades, and even in the dim light we notice the wonderment on the dancers’ faces. Square black-and-white video projections animate the upstage screen, the dancers immediately distracted or hypnotized by them. The movement builds in momentum, characterized by slow, high leg extensions, off-kilter sail turns and brief encounters of touch. Yet, the dancers are forever drawn to the projections, so much so that they sometimes forfeit self-exploration for stillness, pressing their ears to the backdrop to better acquaint themselves with the projected dancing shadows. Then, lit by rectangular lights which frame their bodies, three dancers turn within the confines of the light as it drags slowly across the screen.
We hear a haunting soundtrack of bells and water drops, and a hypnotic repetition of four notes (perhaps a reference to how we are hypnotized by unquestioned socializing processes). Duets and trios fleetingly pass before our eyes as the dancers almost violently exchange partners, throw each other in the air and suspend as if some invisible space has caught them. Upturning themselves with handstands, they manipulate and discover the elbow or the head of another dancer, exploring the limits of the body itself. The phrase “every man has his attitude and his free will” echoes over these encounters.
This image behind them shifts to a copper-coloured wash, “I’m not sure all the things I remember really happened anyways” and “maybe I am just a story I keep telling myself” written upon it in stark white font. Yong enters alone and finds himself in a small illuminated square mid-stage, the frame that he proceeds to explore in a physically poignant solo. He approaches the space as if he were doing an archaeological dig of a seemingly simple, limited square of light. Exploring levels by angularly somersaulting, kneeling, arching his back, and pulling himself towards the corners and sides of his confines, he is at once bound and free, constantly on the edge of his boxed-in world (this is echoed later by the four other dancers, contorting their bodies in their own lit squares). Yong’s needle-like extensions, darting hands and cutting cross-spatial lines are further animated by an intensity in his eyes, and measured by paused moments of self-reflection.
Next, the dancers investigate media as a director of our perception. Entering a darkly lit stage, dancers are revealed in spasms of light to the gargled sounds of radio transmissions, projected radio waves sizzling across their torsos. Though I cannot recall whether it came in the form of sound or projected text, “some things are hidden” and “half truths” guide this commentary on media and its often sneaky effect on our reality. Here, the dancers move in an increasingly robotic manner, lifeless faces and occasionally clenched fists becoming a reality. Their formerly organic, far-reaching physicality becomes the posturing vocabulary of an outside force.
Other moments of interest include commentaries on gendered behaviour and nudity. Each section was saturated with media projections (of images from paper dolls to peep holes), and transient music. What resonates is the poignant final video image, which is now the audience`s only source of light: a large white glass of water is disturbed by a drop of black dye, diffusing and clouding the light until all is dark.
Reality and perception are not easy concepts to tackle in a dance work. “Frames” is a refreshing, physical deviation from the academic voices of philosophers, communication gurus and cultural theorists who have dominated discussions on the subject. Given this, Yong relies heavily upon Poirier’s media display to spell out, sometimes quite literally, what he means by “frames” of reference. This was somewhat problematic for me on a conceptual level, as I was not convinced that the choreographic choices could articulate the theme on their own, without the stellar and relevant imagery. If the pivotal idea was that we are completely reliant on mediation, the dancing was guilty of this reliance as well, with the exception of Yong’s own solo. This is not to say that the movement was not thoughtful and exciting; on the contrary, the physicality explored the space in dynamic, multi-directional ways. Yet, the interdisciplinary question loomed. Indeed, opinions on interdisciplinary performance are variable, and beg several questions, which “Frames” compelled me to ask: should the sum (the work) be greater than the individual parts (music, dance, media, lighting)? Should each part speak on its own? Or, is it a combination of both? I have yet to decide.
While this was an issue deep in my mind, I was amazed at the sharpness with which I noticed the frames around me in my post-performance state – stage, screen, chairs, the ominous boxiness of the theatre and the eye glasses on fellow theatre-goers’ faces – all familiar things became suddenly unfamiliar. This is the ultimate success of “Frames”: it moved me, mid-stride, to notice, to see around, behind and above my surroundings.