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For a show whose stated interest was how technology influences human connection, I expected something rather cynical and cyborg-ish walking into the premiere of (dis)connect. But thanks to a curious, dedicated creator and thoughtful, emotive dancers, the show felt entirely human, arcing along a moving narrative that concluded with complicated warmth.

Photo by Sam Wagner.

(dis)connect., the inaugural work of joBdance., premiered May 6 at Yaw Theater. Creator Joseph Blake cited eight months of global travel under a grant from the University of Washington as a major source of inspiration for the piece, which examined how we connect with ourselves and each other, with and without the influence of technology. Starring two dancers, Alicia Pugh and Sean O’Bryan, (dis)connect. also featured large-scale video projection that intersected periods of live movement.

Blake spoke about how he was curious about what each person sees, and how everyone necessarily has a different perspective. He put that into the work in various ways, seeking to provide multiple connection points. Where one audience member might fixate on the physical movement in front of them, another might be moved by the close-up video work. Yet another might find a way in through the music. In this way, (dis)connect. acknowledges a diversity of neural pathways, how connection itself looks different for each of us.

Photo by Jim Coleman.

Movement, for me, was the entry point. In early portions of the piece, O’Bryan danced with moody, desperate gestures, his own breath crashing in our ears. Pugh’s long limbs stretched tenuously into empty space, haunting and graceful. The dancers really sparkled in their partnering, which wove sweet intimacy into the piece. Together, they conveyed introspection, wounding, tenderness, and sensuality. Pugh and O’Bryan are about the same height, and Blake used this to their advantage for innovative lifts. By interlocking their bodies to create suspension, they levered each other off the floor, floating and wheeling. They met and separated, hurled together and broke apart. At times they were in conflict; at others, they clung to each other like life rafts. At others, they were tentative with each other’s physicality. Perhaps one dancer was meant as a central character, and the other a connection to another person. Perhaps the two dancers were two sides of one person. If there was a central self and an other self, it was difficult to tell which was which. This ambiguity was an asset; after all, each of us is an other to someone else, and we all struggle with knowing ourselves as much as we do with knowing others.

Using two dancers in a piece about connection might seem expected, but from the beginning it was clear there was more going on, as the piece also dealt with questions of observation. As one dancer stepped to the side to observe the other’s movement, I became more conscious of my own gaze, observing them both. Michael Hart, who designed a live feed of the performance, walked the space with a cell phone camera, inevitably capturing the audience as well as the dancers as he broadcast the show to the web. With an intro from Blake at the beginning and a talk back with the full production team at the end inviting observations from the audience, this was no simple duet—it was a multi-person experience, and each iteration would have been unique.

Blake explicitly encouraged the audience to move around to see different perspectives during the piece, but it took video to coax most of us out of our self-conscious seats. As close footage of Pugh and O’Bryan (by Devin Muñoz) flickered over all four walls in turn, the audience shifted to see better—we moved to chairs on opposite sides of the room, stood in neighboring corners, or sat in the center of the floor. In a way, we all sought a similar experience, though we watched from different viewpoints. What we found wasn’t just a better angle to a tv screen—it was a snippet of shared humanity. By moving ourselves, we were more together than we’d been sitting in a single stationary chair.

Photo by Jim Coleman

The work began and ended with the stripping off of clothing: the barrier between inner self and outer world. Between self and other. Between one and another of our own selves. If that had been the only metaphor, the piece might not have succeeded. Connection is, of course, more complicated than that. Thankfully, and delightfully, Blake is fully aware of the complexity, and communicates some of the confusing touchpoints and tangled entryways that inform how and whether we bond with another being. (dis)connect. grapples with desperation and difficulty, and also manages to hope. It felt truly intimate. Achieving such a state in these times of, yes, heartless technology, was all the more impressive. There are walls between us, and real connection can feel scarce. (dis)connect. imagines the possibilities that result when we attempt scale those walls. It might be painful, it might take time, we might need serious imagination to find a way—but the payoff is beautiful.

(dis)connect. by joBdance. appeared May 6-7, 2019 at Yaw Theater. More info HERE.