A quartet of artists explore modern interactions at New Hazlett Theater Thursday, February 8.
By: Tyler Dague
From beneath large sheets of flexible fabric emerge the forms of three performers, each trying to communicate with the other. The music matches their movements as sensors relay data about their positions on the stage. Through touch and separation, the interplay of the performers creates a series of scenes that play with connection and withdrawal – social sensations many of us grapple with throughout our lives.
Such an otherworldly synthesis of sculpture, sound, movement and storytelling comes to the New Hazlett Theater in Allegheny Center on February 8 at 8 p.m., kicking off the first Community Supported Artist (CSA) Performance of 2018. Entitled “Apart From Me,” the mixed media event features sculptor H. Gene Thompson, multimedia musician Arvid Tomayko and dancers Anna Azizzy and Ru Emmons as they explore themes of bonding and the barriers that lead to disconnect.
The work takes place largely beneath fabric as Thompson, Azizzy and Emmons create a series of real-time sculptures that each contribute to the larger story. As they move, sensors feed information to Tomayko, also on stage, who controls the sounds and music for the performance. Taken together, the mix of artistry tells a story about modern interactions and what gets lost in translation when the human element is unclear.
Since the performers are covered, it forces them to communicate in other ways, especially when they can’t see each other. A tug on the fabric, a hand suddenly raised telegraphs where they are in the void.
“Even if we touch, we can’t find a way to each other,” Thompson said. “Are we separated? Are we connected? There’s this confusion. That’s when I translate things about systems of oppression.”
That dancing and movement is essential to the sounds of the production as the small sensors have a wi-fi connection that allows real-time data and orientation and motion and tilt and rotation to generate music. Yet, Tomayko still has everything within his control.
“There’s also a video element to the sensors,” Tomayko explained. “So I’ll be saying, ‘OK, computer. Focus on this side of the stage and capture this movement to make sound.’ Or I’ll be conducting and using Gene’s specific motion data to perform with this instrument.”
In dealing with such heavy subject matter, Thompson and Tomayko acknowledged a level of unease in the tableaux created in “Apart From Me.” However, several surprising moments also add bits of comedy.
“There’s underlying darkness that’s evident,” Thompson said. “However, I’d say that we’re putting this light humor on top of it. It is a layered piece.”
After meeting in 2014 in Providence, Tomayko and Thompson became frequent collaborators in addition to touring separately around the country. “Apart From Me” is the culmination a year’s planning and rehearsal process after being chosen by the New Hazlett last March. Tomayko revealed it was the largest format piece they’ve ever done together.
“I do believe that we’re going for a direction with this series of work,” Thompson said. “It’s not a random multimedia piece that we’re pulling out of thin air. We’ve been building to this point.”
However, Thompson admitted theater was a new medium to her, but she was excited to utilize the array of possibilities presented by the New Hazlett such as lighting direction and feedback from the staff.
“With all of these new opportunities and tools, we’re exploring more than just an abstract concept,” Thompson said. “What are the motives of these characters? Throughout the piece, there are two people who are connecting and one person who is like the monkey in the middle.”
Tomayko explained that the sculptural elements stand in for technology and how it can be an advantage or a hindrance. How well the characters seem to navigate the fabric takes on elements of communication, with one trying to break through to the others.
While “Apart From Me” is an abstract work that involves performers, both artists were adamant that their work was not performance art. “When [people] ask me if my work is performance art – I shut it down. It’s sculpture that I’m performing,” Thompson said. “Oftentimes, performance artists are not creating an image. It becomes highly conceptual in a dry way.”
Combining sophisticated technology, musicianship, sculpture, dance and a few unexpected twists, Thompson and Tomayko are hopeful their themes of connection shine through the serious (and occasionally silly) nature of “Apart From Me.”
“We see the fabric as sort of these membranes,” Tomayko said. “You could be in there with someone, in which case it’s keeping you together. Or you could be on the other side, and you know someone else is there. You can feel them, but you just aren’t quite there [with them].”
For additional information or to purchase tickets, visit the New Hazlett Theater’s website.
Video courtesy of New Hazlett Theater and David Bernabo.