Wells Hill has its world première Nov. 24-26 at DanceHouse. (photo by David Cooper)
“What does it mean to imagine a world where we are not connected all the time?” This is just one of the many questions choreographer (and Jewish community member) Vanessa Goodman is exploring in Wells Hill, which has its world première Nov. 24-26 at DanceHouse.
Goodman is artistic director of the dance company Action at a Distance. Wells Hill was commissioned by Simon Fraser University’s Woodward’s Cultural Programs (SFUW) and is co-presented by DanceHouse and SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. It is a Celebrate Canada 150+ event, but its genesis goes back a few years.
“In early 2014, SFU’s Michael Boucher and I were out for coffee discussing my work,” Goodman told the Independent. “At the time, I was planning what I was going to present at the Chutzpah! Festival in 2015. In our conversation, I shared the anecdote that I grew up in philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s former family home [on Wells Hill Road] in Toronto and that Glenn Gould would sometimes visit. As two towering figures in 20th-century Canada, the idea of being a fly on the wall during their conversations was fun to imagine. Michael helped me recognize the seeds for a piece in this story, and has since supported its creation and production through SFUW.”
In creating Wells Hill, Action at a Distance collaborated with a team including composers Loscil (Scott Morgan) and Gabriel Saloman, lighting designer James Proudfoot and projection artists Ben Didier and Milton Lim. The promotional material notes that, in the work, seven dancers “splice together themes of technology and communication.”
“In Understanding Media, McLuhan stated that different media invite different degrees of participation on the part of the person who consumes it,” explained Goodman. “For me, this draws parallels to consuming dance and is one of the themes I explore in the piece. McLuhan divided media consumption into two categories: hot and cool. Hot media consumption requires the viewer to intensify the use of one single sense and is called ‘high definition.’
“McLuhan contrasted this with cool media consumption, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of the viewer to determine meaning due to the minimal presentation of detail. In these cases, a high degree of effort is necessary to fill in the blanks in areas where the information is obscured. It demands much more conscious participation by the person to extract value and meaning. This type of consumption is referred to as ‘low definition.’ When applied to dance, the audience would be required to be more active here, which includes their perceptions of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all the working parts.
“In this work,” she said, “I apply hot and cool media consumption to crafting the material and finding authenticity within the embodiment of the performers. While I still believe that the audience needs an entry point into the work to become invested, I am interested in defining the hot and cool medium consumption in my staging, demanding the viewer work through their high and low definition comprehension. I am interested in the interplay between hot and cool as a continuum: where they are measured on a scale and also on dichotomous terms.”
Wells Hill isn’t about raising or answering any specific questions, she said, “as much as it is about observing and interpreting some of McLuhan and Gould’s fascinating ideas. In making this work, I kept coming back to the Douglas Coupland quote, ‘I miss my pre-internet brain.’ What does it mean to imagine a world where we are not connected all the time? In some ways, it’s comforting to be plugged into this collective human mass. On the other hand, there is an anxiety linked to this relationship and violence associated with this ceaseless bombardment of data. As McLuhan predicted, technology has become an extension of our nervous system. This is why I feel dance is such an incredible medium to explore these ideas: at its core, human movement is neuromuscular connectivity. I have developed movements with my collaborators that are derived from tasks from our physical reactions to technology: from our Pavlovian responses to messages and social media notifications to the deeper impact on our attention spans while we’re connected. I want to capitalize on both the order that we receive information in and the chaos it can create.”
In response to a question about what McLuhan and Gould each offer by way of the content or structure of Wells Hill, Goodman said that the sound score “is heavily influenced by the history of the house.”
She said, “Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s eldest son, told me that Gould would often come to the home for visits, where he would discuss media, performance and art with his father. Gabriel Saloman and Scott Morgan, both incredible composers that I have been collaborating with over the past few years, have each composed pieces of the music for Wells Hill. They have incorporated audio samples of both McLuhan and Gould speaking about their theories. This adds an interesting entry point to the ideas that inspired Wells Hill. The house has a rich past that has been documented through the written form but has never been explored performatively. I am drawing from this story for the staging of this work, which creates an environment and historical context for the non-linear story arc.”
Wells Hill is at Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, on Nov. 24-25, 8 p.m., and Nov. 26, 2 p.m. In conjunction with the show, there are a few community events. Speaking of Dance Conversations on Nov. 21, 7 p.m., at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (free), is a community roundtable conversation around McLuhan and the Global Village, led by moderator Richard Cavell, founder of UBC’s Bachelor in Media Studies program and author of McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography, and guest speakers. There are also pre-show chats Nov. 24-25, at 7:15 p.m., at the centre, and a post-show social on Nov. 24. Tickets and more information can be found at dancehouse.ca or by calling 604-801-6225.