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REVIEW: Encoded | CarriageWorks, Sydney

A multi-media experience from CarriageWorks residents Stalker Theatre offers moments of breathtaking spectacle. And a little perspective on life.

CarriageWorks’ Bay 12 seating was packed to capacity for the official opening night of the world premiere season of CarriageWorks’ resident company Stalker Theatre’s Encoded. Stalker has married physical theatre (mainly aerial dance and martial arts-influenced acrobatics) to cutting-edge interactive technologies (largely in the realm of 3D photogrammetric projections) to create a truly immersive, transcendent, mind-bending digital landscape that’s responsive to the movement of performers.

The only negative legacy is that the technologies threaten to overwhelm the human performance: the latter seems to be in the service of the former, rather than the other way around, as you might reasonably expect. But, as my companion pointed out, we teeter on the brink of singularity, so why not reflect on the risk to man’s dominion over machines in this way?

“Mired in flesh, tethered to our organs, we are coded into being and stagger forward on our bones into the crackling, jagged place where sensation and abstraction collide. Dreaming of edens, we build our fragile campsites from concrete and girder, and gaze through screens at our makings. The pixels shimmer, the atoms swirl. We move and our eddies sweep away our tenderly crafted spaces. We are haunted by the iron promise of dissolution.”

This poetic rave, I think, comes from Stalker’s artistic director and director of Encoded, David Clarkson. The iron promise of dissolution. I like that. Well, I like the linguistic construction, Not the promise, so much. But this would seem to concur with my friend’s reading of the work. In days gone by (and still), it’s nature that serves to remind us just how puny is our supposed, biblically-bestowed dominion. Hurricanes. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Rising seas. Global warming. Any of these will suffice. But now there’s a new cloud that stalks us and it’s not the one where you store your data. Then again, perhaps it is. The monster of technology we’ve created and reinvent practically everyday is set to consume us.

Clarkson’s starting point for this work was space exploration; more specifically, to probe how our notions and perceptions of space have altered over time and how that has affected our identity and sense of being. So, not only do we find ourselves in one of the immense performance spaces of CarriageWorks, but thrust into virtual space, by clever electronic means.

There are strange, metallic, bug-like beings that look like they’ve been subject to the experiments of a sadistic Nazi orthodontist, or orthopaedic surgeon. I found myself uncertain of their role in this parallel universe, but they did look very fragile; as if a single, well-placed blow could crush them as surely as a steel-capped boot a cockie. Perhaps they are a kind of high-tech cockie, save for the fact they didn’t scuttle about; far from it, they moved very deliberately and conservatively indeed.

Performers are dressed in virtual, fluid, geometric costumes and there are vast plays of atoms and stars sweeping across the walls, these infinitesimal and astral bodies effectively controlled by the motion human ones, in whose wake they abide.

Technically, it’s all terribly sophisticated: the simulations described triggered by infrared tracking of the performers. I’d love to remain blasé, but the wow factor Clarkson predicted would inspire the audience even contaminated me, the try-hard, diehard cynic. In the end, though, it’s not the technology but philosophy, if you will, that impresses. Amidst this intimation of the infinite, we can see ourselves; the performers become our surrogates, seeking to find and make connections in a disparate, exponentially entropic environment. They look tiny, dwarfed, pathetic. Not even Tonka toys in God’s sandpit. It’s a timely reminder of our actual size, since we spend so much of our time and energy operating in a grid of our own making, in which we are not to scale. It allows us to occupy a delusional space, in which we spiral deeper and deeper into a vortex of hedonism and vacuous, “please please me!” individuation, the converse of which is disconnection.

Yes, Stalker’s Encoded can give us a little perspective.

Quite apart from that, it’s a trip. It plays with the very fundaments of one’s perceptions, such that it becomes easy (especially after a sweltering Sydney summer’s eve) to lapse, very willingly, into an almost dream-like state. I did, however, feel Paul Selwyn Norton’s choreography was a little too static, at time, notwithstanding an elegant vision being applied overall and moments of breathtaking spectacularity. The digital design collaboration between Alejandro Rolandi, Andrew Johnston and Sam Clarkson was, however, superlative. And precisely executed.

Encoded is a sensory captivation, an emotional one, to some extent an intellectual one, if not entirely a performative one.

The details: Encoded played CarriageWorks’ Bay 12 from November 28 to December 1.

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