June 17, online performance by Ismailova Theatre of Dance
In this coronavirus age, many dance companies are trying to stay connected to their communities by digging deep into their digital archives and “livestreaming” pre-existing works. But that option didn’t feel right for Merey Ismailova, artistic director of Toronto-based company Ismailova Theatre of Dance. “I wasn’t getting that emotional connection [when watching performance online],” she explained in the post-show talkback.
Rather than giving up on the full scripted live work scheduled for this summer, Ismailova decided to pare down the cast and completely reimagine the show for a digital platform. Seeking Everyday Magicians is an immersive Zoom performance that strives to recreate the energetic exchange of live theatre. The original work was created and rehearsed completely over Zoom, with six cast members collaborating between BC, Toronto and Kazakhstan.
Attending a digital performance is an odd experience — do I dress up? I opt to change out of sweatpants to “attend” the event, which has a list of instructions on the e-ticket. We are encouraged to treat the show like a theatregoing experience by turning off lights, turning off phones and putting the computer on Do Not Disturb. In the virtual waiting room, I stare at the message “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon” and long for the people-watching and expectant chatter that normally precedes a show.
Like a live theatre space, technology (and especially Zoom) can be unpredictable. But Seeking Everyday Magicians finds creative ways to include this in the performance. At the start, audience members are guided through a Zoom tutorial with theatrical flair. A live “computer assistant” (Hailey Christie-Hoyle), lit with an unearthly glow, takes us through some basic steps to set up our screens. She is amusingly convincing as an AI, tilting her head slightly and smiling. Once she is sure every audience member can hear and see — this is an imperfect, cumbersome but necessary process — she “loads the program,” which starts the show.
The light and entertaining story that follows is inspired by a Spanish play, Trees Die Standing Tall by Alejandro Casona. We are placed in a virtual “interview” with the director of the Charity of Lost Souls, an organization that performs acts of goodness for those who need it most. The loveable riff-raff character of the director (Drew Chale) takes us through some heartwarming completed “projects” by letting us look into the (Zoom) windows of three characters who receive help from the charity to overcome their struggles.
Music, dance and acting all have a part to play in the unfolding of the three stories, which are cleverly connected through everyday miracles. At moments throughout the show, audience members are invited to participate in sharing their screens through a pop-up invitation. When the character Marisha (Marisha Ismailova), with help from a nightingale, finally finishes composing her song, the director says with emotion, “It brings joy and inspiration to the whole neighbourhood.” As she plays cascading piano music, audience members’ faces begin appearing in windows all over the screen in a virtual “neighbourhood.” Even though these moments were a little cheesy, I couldn’t help but smile as we were inserted into the story.
Though it’s simple, the plot has perhaps just enough mystery for a digital platform, and just enough goodwill to reach us in this strange and difficult season. Certain topics hit home — stuck in her room, the isolated character of Martha (Nicole Decsey) struggles with depression until the director leaves a gift on her windowsill — and I do feel invested in the characters as I would in a live show. Though the dance sequences feel sadly two-dimensional, the subtleties of the actors’ facial expressions translate powerfully over Zoom.
At the end of the work, as Marisha plays piano and sings the encouraging words, “We can help each other out in the dark and depressing times,” audience members’ faces pop up again in a shared virtual neighbourhood. And looking around from box to box, I realize the feeling that I have been missing over the past few months — experiencing performance together.