Fragile Forms — MACHiNENOiSY (Canada) (PuSh 2019 review)
Feb 2-7 Anvil Centre
By Mikis Vrettakos
The Anvil Center in New Westminster is a building at odds with the older structures on Columbia Street. Where the Anvil offers surfaces of concrete and glass, they offer facades of brick. While the older buildings keep within height limits that respect the slope of the hill, the Anvil disregards its earthly surroundings. In contrast with the older buildings and their regularly placed vertical windows, the Anvil’s windows cut diagonally across its outer surfaces, including the irregular geometric extrusions. The brick buildings evoke the past. The Anvil Center points to the future, or at least the future as it was imagined when the building was planned and designed. To me the contrast is a conversation: half bullying—“What are you going to do about me,” and half imploring—“Come on Columbia Street, make room for some new ideas!”
MACHiNENOiSY has chosen this site for its exploration of dance and architecture, a performance project partly inspired by the work of famous Finnish architect and writer Juhani Pallasmaa. In his writings Pallasmaa talks about something called “haptic” architecture. The idea is to reveal architecture as a lived space we feel with our whole bodies—as opposed to surfaces we simply take in with our eyes. Haptic architecture encourages a multi-sensorial encounter with the spaces in and around a building. Pallasmaa argues in his book The Eyes of the Skin that many buildings, particularly the modernist buildings of the mid-twentieth century, offer a very impoverished sensorial experience. Their facades are monotonously repetitive, there is a paucity of textures and the interiors are are uniformly lit. Often they are dehumanizing in scale—they are big and impersonal; we are little.
Undoubtedly the Anvil Center is imposing. Strolling past on the sidewalk, it’s unclear where the access is or whether a passerby is even supposed to have access. Looking through the windows from the street I see a multi-level atrium with a security desk commanding the main floor. Looking up, I see a glass office tower growing out of the lower structure. MACHiNENOiSY’s performance is called Fragile Forms. If Artistic Directors Delia Brett and Daelik are to tease fragility from this structure, they have their work cut out for them.
Entering the atrium I have my coat taken and am given a red sticker that will designate the group I am to travel with. Our first stop is an unexpected exit staircase—unexpected because, unlike the rest of the building, it’s painted in deep red hues and does a tight zig-zag up four floors. We are led in single file up and down the stairs while a number of performers pass us, walking backwards in the opposite direction with eyes closed. Other performers are perched on narrow ledges in windows cut out of the walls in jagged shapes. This is mildly interesting but it’s the next stop where things go from interesting to engrossing.
We sit in chairs in an unremarkable meeting room facing windows that look out into the atrium and across to other windows that look out onto Columbia Street. To our left is a sink and cupboards. A performer enters and goes through mundane actions, opening cupboards, turning on water, filling a cup. She leaves. Another performer enters and repeats these actions. I notice her reflection in the windows, first in the windows of the room and then in the atrium windows outside the room. She leaves. Another performer enters and goes through the same motions. The repetitions begin to accelerate. Suddenly the wall to my right accordions open to reveal another audience group sitting in chairs just like us and facing the windows. This doubling is a surprise. We have doubled and so have the reflections in the windows.
Dancers are now sliding past me on the floor and climbing into the windows: about ten dancers shape and reshape themselves in the frames while reflections of other dancers in other spaces, somewhere behind me—in the halls, in the atrium—appear in the reflections creating layers of actual and perceptual depth. The sound of bells or of tones from a vibraphone have been bouncing between left and right speakers, creating an acoustic parallel to the reflected layers.
In the next situation I’m given a stage experience unlike any I’ve ever had. Having been previously unaware of the theatre on the third floor of the Anvil, I and the others are led on to the stage from a side door. We settle into detached rows of cushy theatre seats. The tall, black, stage curtains are drawn so we can’t see into the auditorium, the direction we’re facing. It’s very dark. Nothing is happening. It’s a bit creepy. Eventually the curtains start to move ever so slightly, as if they are breathing. It’s very creepy now. The sound design is low and throbbing and slightly foreboding, which adds to the effect.
Creepy is perhaps the wrong word. The curtains, the whole room, is alive in a subtle and organic way. It inhales and exhales. And this feels a little scary and mysterious. What I thought was just a trick of the eye—an extra fold in the black curtain—emerges as a ten foot tall shroud-figure. It feels both menacing and imploring. Another such creature emerges from another part of the curtain. It’s as if the building, or at least the theatre, is demanding to be known for itself, rather than just as a backdrop for the performance of plays and musical events.
The black curtains start to part, revealing a zone between them and a further set of red curtains. The area is saturated in blood red light. More creatures move within this zone. The black curtains shut and when they open again the whole auditorium is revealed, but mostly unlit. Sections of detached theatre seats—with people in them—appear from the darkness and rapidly slide, backs first, across the floor toward us. Moments later, at the far end of the room, where tiers of seating should be, dancers, some half naked, begin to climb an unseen wall. They seem to climb the air. They rise individually, like spiders on an invisible web, or clamber over one another’s shoulders. The theatre has been transformed. No longer a place of passive viewing but a hive of insect-like activity where every surface has become alive.
The final scene takes place in the ballroom on the main floor. It has been criss-crossed with elastic ribbons that stretch from wall to wall like a huge cat’s cradle. The room is so big that the dancers can achieve a full sprint at times. They find various pathways through the maze of ribbon. I’m reminded of Bauhaus theatre artist Oskar Schlemmer and his method of dividing the volume of a room geometrically, according to his own ideas of how a body projects its structure into space. The ballroom scene feels like a much freer version of that.
I take my guide’s advice and continually change my vantage point by moving from balcony to balcony and up and down the main stair case. From a balcony perspective I notice for the first time that the ballroom seems to occupy the lower level of a section of the building that is shaped like the corner of a pyramid. I don’t know what to make of this, but I wonder if this is a reference by the architects to art, monumentality and cultural endurance. Or maybe, given that most of the building is an office tower, it’s a tribute to bureaucracy and enduring wealth.
At the show’s conclusion I realize MACHiNOiSY has achieved what it set out to do. I’ve become fully sensitized to the space in a way I never could have been as a simple “user” of the building, as someone who simply traverses corridors and stairs to get to a room for one purpose or another. And I realize that very few people will ever understand the architecture as I and my fellow patrons have tonight. Brett, Daelik and the dancers have made the spaces intimate to the audience in various ways. But others will never have this opportunity to develop a personal relationship to the building, at least not in this way. The modernist/postmodernist architecture is one of clean, brightly lit surfaces. Traces of the previous day’s activity are wiped away nightly by the cleaning staff and by the way the materials resist wear. Human occupation is subordinated to the structure itself. Memory has no place to linger. There are no discernible scratches to be found, no surreptitious or ostentatious graffiti, no grooves worn in the floor. And virtually no shadows to allow one’s imagination to run around in.
If those who planned and operate the Anvil want this space to be more than an adjunct to the office tower above, an advertisement for some undeveloped idea of art and business coming together and cross pollinating (does that ever happen in this place?), if they want this to be a place of social interaction for the community, then they are going to have to find a way to open it—literally and in spirit—to the public. And they would do well to run Fragile Forms on a regular basis so that the public can start to get a feel for space’s possibilities as a cultural and creative hub.
(Editor’s disclosure: Delia Brett is my partner. Mikis Vrettokos and I were both contributors to the recently defunct RealTime Arts Magazine out of Sydney, Australia.)