On Double-Touch and Performing Objects

Deanna Peters’ META By Rachel Silver Maddock
  • Kim Sato and Justine Chambers in Deanna Peters' META / Photo by Yvonne Chew
  • Deanna Peters in her own work META / Photo by Yvonne Chew

Vancouver Scotiabank Dance Centre, October 26-27, 2017

Three women walk in a perfect lineup from shortest to tallest: Deanna Peters, Justine A. Chambers and Kim Sato. Their steps are exactly synchronized, but every second step they lag slightly to the side. This audible “step, shift” quickly becomes a soundscore amid silence, keeping time like a metronome. As the lights strobe softly around the stage, the architecture of the room is revealed: the Faris black box theatre stripped bare of its wings, a microphone stand with an attached mirror against the wall stage right and a large ribbon arch suspended curiously from the ceiling grid downstage. This is the absorbing setting of Deanna Peters’ META. The work takes a curious, theatrical approach to human sensation and its relationship to objects and other bodies.

Minutes go by, and the dancers’ steps have become mesmerizing. They wear simple black clothing with brightly coloured body part decals: a large mouth gapes from Chambers’ stomach; a bent forearm with splayed fingers reaches around Sato’s back; and two large eyes gaze unblinking from the back of Peters’ knees. The women add precise ninety-degree turns to the sequence, as the walking formation grows more complex. Out of the void silence, an electronic beat emerges, revealing a hidden groove to their pace. A sense of relief descends.

META showcases Peters’ unabashed personal style and, with collaborators Justine A. Chambers and Kim Sato, explores the complexity of the human body and its potential for connectivity within and without its physical limits. The show notes proclaim, “We are META. Our body is not one thing. We are fluid, messy and protean. We are fragments creating loops with ourselves and others.” The work delves into its topic from two angles: exploring the human body first, then placing it in relationship to objects and other bodies. 

The work picks up energetically. After the introduction, the stage is lit with a dozen squares. To a driving beat by DJ ICE-B, layered with everything from bells, pulses and human voices, parts of the dancers move eerily in and out of the light, as if independent from their bodies. We see a forearm light up downstage, while a chest catches the light stage right, and then a knee upstage. Between the projected squares Sato, Chambers and Peters are faintly visible, improvising fluidly with a keen awareness of their limbs, flesh and focus.

Following this, the dancers form a line downstage facing the audience. A fascinating vignette commences in which the dancers self-explore their bodily surfaces (without exception) through rubbing, brushing and sliding. Human body parts are exposed in all their peculiarity: squishy surfaces, bony digits, hair, toes and everything in between. In the silence, all we can hear are the sounds of hands moving across fabric and skin.

Though close to us, the performers’ gaze during this sequence is internal, prioritizing the sensation of touch. Watching it feels bizarre and a little uncomfortable – like when you catch someone scratching themselves and feel embarrassed on their behalf. But the performers are utterly focused. I begin to imagine the dancers’ sensations of their own movements, reflecting on the phenomenon of double-touch – the concurrent sensation of knucklebone to cheek, or fingers across stomach. Perhaps the dancers’ sensations are the “meta” in this performance, the text within a text.

In these moments, a strong combination of lighting, music and choreography exposes the body as multi-faceted, bizarre and fascinating. But around halfway, META evolves unexpectedly, introducing three large objects to the stage all designed by Natalie Purschwitz. In the post-show chat, Peters explains that the set pieces – a large ribbon arch, a white disc and the microphone with mirror – are intended to not only “perform alongside” the dancers but also perform on their own.

The large ribbon arch makes a dazzling entrance to the work. On stage right, Peters stands with two hands gripped on a black rope. As she tugs, the arch lowers suddenly from the ceiling, and then rises again, bouncing downwards to a seductive reggae beat. Lit vividly in orange from the front, the ribbons dance through the air like circus performers, interpreting the music, until they finally reach the floor.

Later, a massive white disc (six feet in diameter) emerges from an upstage wing, seemingly of its own accord and to the amusement of the audience. Captivatingly bright and held invisibly from behind, it spins and slides around the stage in a strangely virtuosic solo accompanied by a recorded female voice – a rich and hearty tremolo. When the white disc retreats suddenly backstage, it leaves Chambers, Sato and Peters standing huddled together upstage, as if by magic.

These object solos are intriguing, but the relationship between dancers and objects remains unspecific. A sense of cohesion returns at the end when the dancers physically connect for the first time. They move around the stage in a tight group, disconnecting and coming back together, and snaking their hands forward across black fabric. When they finally gather underneath the ribbon arch in a huddled black mass, with six hands on the microphone stand, the show takes an unexpectedly theatrical turn.

Chambers is at the front, with the oval mirror perfectly obscuring her face. Into the microphone, she launches into a humorous and transparent monologue that reflects on the creation process for META (“We used to suspend and bend, but we don’t do that anymore”), including grant expectations (“Did you see body parts moving, Janet?”) and other personal reflections (“I think my son is charming”) with expressive stammering and repetition.

Though rough around the edges, this down-to-earth ending brings the performance a sudden strength, to which the audience responds with chuckles and murmurs of affirmation. And in the last moments, when Chambers uses the mirror to reflect a spotlight around the audience, I hear the words from the introduction echo in my memory – “We are all META.”

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