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RADICAL SYSTEM ART TACKLES TECH ISOLATION

Radical System Art. I am pulled in by the name of this Vancouver B.C.-based group. I read that the company “fuses dance, theatre and martial arts with interactive technology” and “is guided by a principle of harnessing…structure with chaos, technique with instinct.” Intrigued, the performance at Edmonds Center for the Arts (ECA) goes on my calendar. 

As a dance venue, ECA has fallen off my radar, but as we park, memories surface of seeing The Nutcracker here with my kids years ago. Parking is refreshingly easy here in the large, free lot with plenty of street parking nearby. The venue, only 20 minutes north of Seattle, curates programming featuring a diverse range of music, dance, comedy, theater, and speaking engagements that represent a dynamic blend of cultures from around the world and spans genres and generations.  

Photo by Emile Bland

Settled in the 700-seat theater reading the program, the title Momentum of Isolation strikes me as an oxymoron since I usually associate isolation with stagnation. Visually, the oxymoron continues onstage where there are elements of a typical office space—a desk and mute, gray cubicle walls—but also a whimsically oversized-red filing cabinet and large Muppet-like yellow flower on the desk. 

Seated at the desk, artistic director and choreographer Shay Kubler is madly stamping papers. When the lights dim, Kubler dons a suit coat connected by red bungee cords to the wings. He begins running in place against cacophonous music and blinding light, seemingly metaphoric of the rat race of the working world. As he strains against the bungees and is pulled and suddenly released until he falls, Kubler’s frantic movements convey a disturbing, toxic distress. I think of my time spent working in cubicle office spaces, feeling like my daily working life had no purpose in the grand scheme of things, lacking connection to colleagues just beyond the walls. The genesis of Momentum of Isolation reflects the findings of studies Kubler read showing that social isolation is more detrimental to health than cigarettes or alcohol. In 2018, when Kubler learned that these impacts were becoming so concerning that the U.K. instituted a “Minister of Loneliness,” he felt it was critical to explore this epidemic.

Photo by Emile Bland

To accomplish this exploration of social isolation, the show toggles back and forth between Kubler alone in his office interacting only with inanimate objects and the company of seven dancers representing society. In many of the group sections, the choreography explores how our interactions with technology, especially social media, are disrupting our connection to reality. At intermission, my friend and I discuss one scene that particularly resonates as reminiscent of the casual swiping right and left on a dating app. One dancer faces a tight circle of performers who are seated on chairs who whirl one way and then another as the woman facing them waves her arm side to side. She finally embraces one man and watches him, nonplussed, as he repeatedly crosses the space towards her. He attempts to speak his heart to her, but each time he retreats, moving in an amazing animal-flow, martial arts-like style. The audience laughs empathetically at the physical comedy as he trips over his own words, perhaps knowing how difficult it can be to vulnerably voice what we want to say to someone else, especially someone plucked from cyberspace. 

The difficulty of truly connecting with another person across cyber walls is underscored and cleverly portrayed in RCA signature theatrical style when a woman dances with a headless, life-sized marionette that is connected to another performer with poles at his ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and hands. She keeps reaching through the shadowy puppet, but the couple remain achingly apart. 

Photo by Emile Bland

The show ends without offering any antidote to technologically-induced social isolation, but my friend and I laugh recalling a scene where Kubler does battle with the oversized filing cabinet. Drawers punch out at him unpredictably and he slams them closed with increasing frequency until one catches him painfully in the elbow. My friend says it reminds her of the sickening, never-ending process of trying to navigate life through tornados of links, logins, computer files, apps, and platforms.

We search Google Maps for a place to have a drink to continue our discussion of the many ways in which the show’s themes resonate with our technologically harried lives. After a block or two, we give up trying to match the digital directions to the angled streets lined with inviting restaurants. Instead, we wander into the first one that calls to us. My friend comments that the woman seated next to us looks gorgeous, so I touch her arm and tell her so. When our eyes meet and she smiles appreciation, it feels like we have arrested the momentum of digital isolation, at least for a moment. 

Radical System Art’s Momentum of Isolation played at Edmonds Center for the Arts March 23, 2024.