deus::ex::machina: please keep your phones on

It’s collective chaos up at the Monument. Crowds occupy the stairs leading down to the Sundowner stage where a team of Darkroom Contemporary dancers do their thing. Behind us, individuals walk around with backpack speakers, blasting out a combination of music and the grating sounds of traffic – the sublime sounds of Cara Stacey and Lungiswa Plaatjies clashing with blaring hooters. A voice comes through a loudhailer somewhere, instructing us to consult our smartphones. On our screens, via a website activated by a QR code, there is a call to choose what the dancers do next. We cast our votes and watch it all play out.

In deus::ex::machina, Darkroom Contemporary’s offering at this year’s National Arts Festival, “telematic performance” – the combination of remote streaming, information sharing, and cell phone technology – merges with online interaction and live audience participation to craft a multifaceted and unique work of art. The idea, developed during the global lockdown in 2020, is to tap into a “human geography”, the way we chart out routes, relationships, interactions and personal cartographies, or how we’re conditioned to navigate specific urban circuits. In inception, the work was made for public space, although audiences would have watched and participated completely virtually.

Now, back in the physical world, although still with the option of watching from home via livestream, there is a curious combination of the physical and the virtual, audiences dividing their attention between the dancers on stage and the prompts on their phones.

The call comes again: Consult your phones, cast your vote. I choose the dancer dressed in green to perform dance sequence number 2. Then I choose the pink dancer to perform sequence number 3, watching as my input is collated and translated in real-time. Later, I choose yellow and green to dance a duet. I am outvoted, red and yellow come out on top. It’s fun for a while, being this invisible hand reaching through the machine and into reality, but the format soon grows repetitive and I pocket my phone, choosing to watch the dancers, exclusively.

And while experimental technology in theatre spaces always runs the risk of becoming gimmicky, deus::ex::machina manages to make it work, largely due to the fact that the performance is brief, and tech pairs well with the short-form.

Ultimately, deus::ex::machina is a collective choreographic experience, a participatory performance that changes its shape and form depending on its setting. In the Monument, specifically, the dancers perform beneath the ethereal wings of the artist Usha Seejarim, as well as the large woodcut works of Cecil Skotnes, all of it suspended above them. It’s an incidental meeting of dance and visual art, but a compelling one, nonetheless.

The Darkroom dancers, under the direction of Louise Coetzer, have a distinct choreographic style – fluid, mercurial movement that is as adaptable and responsive as it is poised and self-assured – and the performance becomes a striking, singular scene amidst the colour and composition of the building itself.

Similarly, the human geography that the work seeks to draw out and harness is all the more present in such a space. Audience members shirk convention, climbing the network of stairs in the building to view the performance from above, behind and alongside the Sundowner Stage.

Afterwards, much of the audience chatter centres around the multiplicity of sound and movement – the anxiety of excess that comes with watching and participating in a performance physically, virtually, sometimes simultaneously, in a crowd of strangers. Perhaps that’s the point. Still, after two years of an all-virtual Festival, it’s the physical presence of the stage that emerges most triumphantly – the enduring act of the body in motion, live and in the room.        

deus::ex::machina has one more site-specific performance taking place on June 25, 2022. Catch the at Drostdy Lawns from 15:00 to 15:25.     

©2022 The Critter. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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