Shay Kuebler is stamping documents and solving equations on an old-school calculator. A bell rings and a green light flashes in approval. Behind him, an idyllic seaside is projected onto a folding screen, but the connection wavers and the image glitches. Kuebler is unaware of the ominous portend, blissfully stamping away.
So begins Momentum of Isolation (MOI), a work by Kuebler’s dance company Radical System Art and presented by White Bird at PSU’s Lincoln Hall through Saturday November 19th. According to the program notes, Kuebler was first inspired to create a work that examines how people experience loneliness and social isolation in 2018, after reading about the United Kingdom’s “Minister of Loneliness.” It goes without saying that, in subsequent years, Kuebler’s theme has become even more relevant.
One does not need to be alone to feel lonely and a person who is physically isolated does not always feel alone. Kuebler and his team of dancers illustrate the vastly different ways loneliness can manifest. In doing so, MOI bends genres and forms, from contemporary dance to physical theatre, hip hop, and martial arts. Over the course of the evening, Kuebler karate kicks, sprints in place indefinitely, and elegantly stumbles about the stage in a series of vignettes that often revolve around a lazzi, to borrow a term from Commedia dell’arte: a bit, or joke.
Such as Kuebler’s paperwork: an activity that recalls the isolation of working from home. The ball finally drops when Kuebler incorrectly files a document. Instead of receiving a green light of approval, a red light flashes with a corresponding buzz. Kuebler is dumbfounded. He tries again, but no dice. The music matches Kuebler’s panic, and he begins to stamp and type with astonishing speed. Kuebler hands become a blur as his desk turns into a drum set. But the furniture can’t withstand the assault for long; it splits in two and Kuebler is thrust out of his office into the no man’s land of the empty stage. Was he just fired? Probably, but in MOI nothing is explicitly stated. Kuebler draws sketches, leaving it to audience to fill in the blanks.
Radical System Art’s seven-member company complements Kuebler’s solo work, which follows a single character’s journey through a technological forest – imagined in part by Kuebler and Paul Paroczai’s digital sound composition. The ensemble performances are performed between Kuebler’s sets, and, when he is offstage, the company puts on a variety show.
The ensemble first emerges during Kuebler’s stamping routine, like school children logging off their computers and stepping into the real world for the first time. Various scenes include the company playing a bunch of ne’er-do-well gossipers, an exercise group whose movements are controlled by a single leader, and a retinue of suitors, with one dancer sorting through the prospects like a DJ spinning a record. The last gesture evokes dating apps, where users must swipe through a sea of profiles in search of a match – an inherently lonely activity, as anyone who has tried online dating well knows. As a whole, the ensemble explores peoples’ missed connections and the technological barriers, sometimes self-inflicted, that cause them.
We see these barriers literally in a sequence with the dancers Sarah Hutton and Keiran Bohay. The pair share a waltz that wants to be romantic – except Bohay controls a life-size puppet that separates his body from Hutton’s. Bohay’s doppelgänger wears the same clothes as the real Bohay, and while Hutton tries to maneuver past the puppet, she never fully reaches him: their duet is kept physically apart. Hutton is stuck dancing alone with Bohay‘s shadow.
Another passage portrays a second pair of would-be lovers, this time featuring Hutton opposite Aiden Cass, with the movement set to a fractured recitation of “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Cass embodies the indecisive speaker, who cannot say a word – let alone a sentence – without rolling back. Hutton is rooted in her chair, waiting for a profession of love that never comes. Cass slides towards her on his stomach, then jumps back, curls up in thought, then gestures to the moon. Cass impressively sustains this kinetic display of commitment issues, to great comedic effect. But his inability to express his feelings is emblematic of that more insidious strain of isolation: the kind experienced in the presence of others.
The company is given more prominence as the evening progresses, but we occasionally return to Kuebler’s story. His later travails include playing whack-a-mole against a filing cabinet with malfunctioning doors (another lazzi), as well as mourning his office plant during a cinematic death scene. Kuebler’s journey is an entirely solo one. During MOI he only interacts with inanimate objects, never another dancer. MOI is a collage of different styles, which sometimes clash. But the piece’s strength lies in its fragmentation and in the concise visual power of the sketches. The ending suggests all the scenes fit together, that the ensemble’s characters are somehow tied up in the journey of Kuebler’s onstage alter ego. Maybe Kuebler’s character wasn’t so alone after all. Or maybe, though surrounded by other people, he was, nevertheless, experiencing his own personal social isolation.
- Shay Kuebler and Radical System Art with Momentum of Isolation continues on Friday, November 18 and Saturday, November 19, with both performances at 8 p.m. at Lincoln Hall on the Portland State University campus. For tickets, please visit the online box office.