1 of 2
2 of 2
SPOTLIGHT JAPAN: HAPTIC/HOLISTIC STRATA choreographed and performed by Hiroaki Umeda (Rating: NNN). See listing.; and SAYONARA/I, WORKER by Oriza Hirata (Rating: NNN). See listing. Both at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). To March 2. $54. 416-368-3110. See schedule at canadianstage.com. Rating: NNN
Forget any preconceptions you might have about the delicacy of Japanese art - cherry blossoms and all that.
Canadian Stage's week-long Spotlight Japan series demolishes those clichés with a pair of double bills that places us firmly in the 21st century. The technological aspect of the works is as up-to-date and geek-friendly as next year's consumer electronics show.
Certainly dancer/choreographer Hiroaki Umeda's two pieces make use of our increasingly complex digital landscape. The first few moments of Haptic evoke the little hums and sizzles of a booted-up computer, with the performer appearing on the dark stage like a shadow on an unlit screen.
As the lights gradually come up, Umeda, shaking his limbs, appears like some nightmarish zombie. The mesmerizing soundscape - full of electronic beeps and blips - and the subtle lighting design become chaotic forces controlling him.
The payoff comes in the final moments, when within this mechanical matrix we finally hear him breathe and see him move with some degree of freedom.
The second piece, Holistic Strata, is a variation on the same theme of life ruled by technology. This time, Umeda casually walks onto the stage in informal grey clothes and black shoes. Soon the stage goes dark and his body is lit up with tiny lights. Before long, the entire playing area is covered in a virtual galaxy, swirling with an inexorable force.
This is less a dance work than an installation, with the design - credited mostly to co-developer YCAM (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media) Interlab - crucial to the content.
At times Umeda seems caught in some experiment involving particle physics or lost navigating a digital snowstorm; sounds drill into your skull with mechanical insistence and then morph into what sounds like flatulence.
Through it all, Umeda keeps moving, executing a series of seemingly random movements that actually take lots of skill to pull off.
If electronic sights and sounds drive the dance in the first part of program, electronic inventions are central to the two short theatre works, written and directed by Oriza Hirata, that conclude the evening.
In Sayonara, a female android recites poetry to a terminally ill woman. The reader malfunctions, requiring a call to a repairman.
Two of the four characters in I, Worker are domestic robots. They're a couple, like the husband and wife they serve; just as the husband has trouble working, so does the male robot, Takeo.
Both productions explore the interaction between the mechanical and the human, especially in terms of emotion. As the human performers share the stage with the mechanical actors, creations of Hiroshi Ishiguro, we're not only treated to a visually striking theatre but also asked to consider what constitutes feelings.
At first it's hard to tell which of the two females onstage in Sayonara is the android and which is the human. Geminoid F, the former, is amazingly lifelike in appearance; her companion, played by Bryerly Long, has as impassive a face as her fellow performer.
But there is feeling in the show, and it comes from the delivery of the text. If we're moved by Geminoid F, sent to a different job at play's end, it's because of the poetry she reads. Whether her voice is electronically created or recorded by an actor, there's a sense of wistfulness, even sadness, in many of her lines, despite a statement that "androids do not like" and by extension don't have feelings. Her final poem, a Japanese verse - we've also heard English, German and French poems - is about searching for home, and we can't help but feel that Geminoid F is also a lone traveller looking for a resting place.
I, Worker is a less subtle, more comic piece. The Mayamas (Hiroshi Ota and Minako Inoue) praise their apron-wearing female robot, Momoko, for her improved cooking skills; her "partner," Takeo, can't rouse himself to work, yet that's what he was created for. There's light humour in Takeo's "sadness" when he realizes he doesn't feel like working. The human wife understands his lethargy, just as she accepts her husband's.
While there's a mention that robots are limited in their ability to interact with humans, the two women talk about how to handle their respective partners. Alone, the robots discuss what their owners are feeling, though Takeo and Momoko say they can't understand emotions. But in their own way they do, with the occasional solicitous or empathic comment.
If you're a regular theatregoer, you already know to turn off your cellphone or other electronic device before the show. But you really have to do so here. Otherwise, you might directly affect the performance of the electronic actors.