Earlier this afternoon, Choy Ka Fai stuck some pads on my right arm and left cheek and let rip a few thousand volts of electricity.
I?m exaggerating of course. It was only a slight electrical jolt, but it was enough to make my arm contort involuntarily. And my face is still twitching ever so slightly. I hope the lady in the bus didn?t think I was coming on to her.
But at least I can say that for less than a minute, I became a butoh artist. Sorta. Kinda.
What if you can digitally map out, codify and archive dance movements? And what if, with a tweak of a knob or a press of a button, you can access and enact it?
That?s the premise behind Notion: Dance Fiction, Choy?s fascinating lecture performance that?s part of an ongoing project about muscle memory.
It?s all very Matrix-y. Plug in and voila! Instant Moonwalk.
Armed with his laptops, consoles and this afternoon?s collaborator, choreographer Joavien Ng, Choy presents the preliminary results of this unusual research.
In NDF, he reduces dance to, literally, a physiological tic, a muscle contraction brought about by electroshock. He aligns it to scientific developments stretching all the way back to the 1700s and to forays in contemporary art from artists like Stelarc and Daito Manabe.
Creating a programme that allows him to convert video images of dance pieces into electrical impulses, he sticks aforementioned pads unto his body and ?does? butoh artist Tatsumi Hijikata?s Summer Storm.
And then comes the fun part. He gets Ng to do the same thing. Using samples from his database of performances by contemporary dance choreographers, which are also projected onscreen, Ng does an Yvonne Rainer, a Vaslav Nijinsky, an Isadora Duncan, a Lin Hwai-Min, and even one of her earlier pieces.
Insider quips abound. A technical glitch during her Akram Khan moment sees her ?looped? (?The file is corrupted,? says Choy. A joke or a jibe?). She does a Jerome Bel?which basically entails doing nothing.
And then Choy complicates things, cutting and pasting, combining pieces: Rainer meets Pichet Klunchun, a Rainer, Klunchun and Merce Cunningham hybrid. A Frankenstein of dance.
Human agency is erased as dance becomes patterns filtered through machines. For some, the possibility is an ethical and artistic nightmare (what happens to genius? To chance?) For others, it?s a glimpse at a gamechanging breakthrough (I can become the next Messi! We can all become the next Messi!)
It?s a lovely debate to have, and indeed, a number of folks during the post-show discussion brought up questions having to do with one or the other.
But there?s something else going on here. If the title isn?t enough of a giveaway, the contrast between the crudeness and jerkiness of Choy?s earlier demonstrations and Ng?s rather fluid reenactments of some complicated movements should be enough of a hint.
You don?t have to try it out to see that right now, this proposition is really one for the future, but since I did, I?d have to point out that it can get pretty uncomfortable. Ng would have to be a masochist to go through all that. Heck, I don?t think the body?s even prepared for such abuse.
And that?s where the coolness of the piece really lies?that the two?have deadpanned their way through NDF, talking about and discussing muscle memory and all that scientific stuff, pushing a case for it, while at the same time interrogating it.
Seen in that light, NDF debunks its own arguments and proves its exact reverse: in the end, Ng combines all these different portions into one piece, without any outside assistance.
And through it all, we, the audience, are not so much deceived as made complicit by our very act of viewing in this continuous shuffling between fact and fiction.
While there is a twist to the proceedings, NDF is far from being a ?punchline? work. When it quotes the Rainer piece ?The Mind Is A Muscle?, you understand it not only in relation to the debate about where the art of dance really comes from, but also in relation to you sitting there and shaping your own cognitive experience of the show. Inasmuch as Choy and Ng are piecing together these mini-choreographies, aided by technology or otherwise, you are likewise doing the same thing.
Shocking, isn?t it?