You could call Jacqueries a transmedia performance, a piece of site-specific dance-theater, an interactive multi-media event. But what was most deliciously, engagingly unnerving about this Filmgate Interactive event was the way Jacqueries gives reality a melodramatic virtual twist. It jacks your imagination to a degree most of us probably haven’t experienced since we were kids playing a game of make-believe.
Canadian choreographer/computer programmer Jacob Niedzwiecki promised a Jacqueries app (which he created especially for this performance) would layer effects and images over the action. But the most captivating part for me was less what happened on the small screen, but the way that the six excellent dancer/performers’ actions transform your feeling about the alleys and hallways and throngs of people in Sobe on a weekend night.
You start in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel South Beach, with a borrowed smartphone pre-loaded with the app, when you’re also assigned a colored wristband (a rag tied round your wrist) that will determine which of four story threads – and characters and sequence of events, you’ll follow. Random, like life. On Friday I picked Red, on Saturday, Green. In each the action and the point of view and the insights that follow are different. Again, like life.
The smartphone buzzes and comes to life with John Gzowski’s musical soundtrack, which continues throughout the piece. In this, as in other ways, Jacqueries jumps off from the way those small screens have come to mediate our lives. How many of us walk around listening to music on our phones, or constantly check text messages or Facebook photos? In Jacqueries those now-mundane pulls on our attention to our daily here-and-now become vital adjuncts to the action – they boost what we’re seeing and experiencing, instead of taking us away from it. Except they also do take us away, because they split our attention. Hmmm. The soundtrack lends drama, emotion to what we see. (Folks who didn’t get a smartphone on Saturday evening, because the production ran short of devices, had a very different experience than I did – less dramatic and engaged, more absurd – isn’t this kindof silly, running around watching people play make believe spy games.)
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The app quickly scrolls through pictures and names of the characters – the Veteran, the Agent Provocateur, the Radical – then sends you off after one of them. If you’re looking at the crowd around you, musing on what’s going on, you’ll miss some clues.
On Friday I follow the tall, dark-haired Veteran (Anisa Tejpar) out of the hotel lobby and down an alley towards the beach. She’s walking fast and looks worried; her consternation, and the way I have to trot to keep up, makes me anxious as well. Where is she going? Why is she in such a hurry? You start looking around for clues, at the people walking by, the dark alleys opening to the side, the scarily revealing lights of Ocean Drive. Because you’re paying more attention trying to figure out the character’s motivation, your awareness of your surroundings is heightened: the sound blasting from an SUV, the dark gated passageways (to take out garbage) that punctuate the alleys, the couple with the stroller, the guy on a bike. Instead of being just part of the normal nighttime scene on South Beach, they become the live backdrop to the story you’re following – and maybe part of it. The performers all have headphones taped onto their ears – is that woman jogging with headphones one of them? Did I miss her in the character preview?
I was so intrigued by Friday’s experience that I returned to follow another story strand on Saturday evening. The surprise of the first evening was gone, but I got to add a different perspective to the actions I’d seen on Friday. At one point on Saturday I saw the Veteran slipping in through a window of the Carlton, and knew she’d be answering the door for the Radical (Rudi Goblen) inside – which is where I’d been on Friday, waiting breathlessly to see who answered his urgent knock on the door.
Jacqueries’ ‘story’ is a kind of thriller, though we never find out what ideology motivates the Radical, or what government or nefarious international whatever employs the Agent Provocateur (Catherine Larocque), or why the Ingenue (Léa Lavoie-Gauthier) gets so much abuse – drugged twice, flung down the stairs, tied up - other than that’s the fate of innocents in action movies. The action is all physical, mimed; an ‘argument’ in a small dark room is stomping, lunging, gesturing (lit by the flashlights on our devices.) Dialogue would have added another layer of meaning and clues, but how could we have listened to the performers speaking with headphones playing music in our ears? Anyways, Niedzwiecki is a choreographer, not a playwright; more crucially, talking would have taken us away from the motivations and storylines we keep making up in our heads.
There were only a few times when the app showed us images or scenes happening elsewhere, fewer than I thought there would be. I think everyone gets to see the bearded Technician (Luke Garwood), dancing against a Mattise-like mural in an alley, through the colorful shapes flowing across the smartphone screen, so that he seems to disappear behind a blinking wall or swim through animation. On Saturday night, my device showed a beachside scene I’d witnessed for real on Friday, the Veteran and the Radical flipping and wrestling against the wall that lines the beach on Ocean Drive, lit by moonlight. But on Saturday I watched it race walking down an alley after the Ingenue, watching her over the top of the battling duo on my phone screen. Someone following a story track different from my own said their device showed the Ingenue and the Agent Provocateur wrestling in a cramped service stairway, which I watched peering down from the stairs above.
Jacqueries takes place either outside or in cramped, claustrophobic spaces inside the Carlton. When you’re outside, you wonder how you look, skittering down the street in a clump of people wearing headphones, to other folks on their way to restaurants or normal nighttime fun. Weird, for sure – but no time to feel self-conscious, because you gotta keep up with the Radical, who’s hiding in the entrance to Walgreens, or the Ingenue, who’s starting to stumble woozily as she races down the alley, and who’s that slipping away around the corner??? When you’re inside, you’re packed in with other people, adding to the tension and the claustrophobia. The moment in the stairwell, as we squeeze after the Ingenue and the Provocateur flipping and shoving and wrestling each other down the narrow stairs, was particularly intense.
At least two people die. On Friday night, I saw the Veteran tumble into the hotel’s pool after a long struggle with Niedzwiecki’s mysterious black-suited Operative. Had he killed her? What happened? Then, on Saturday, I thought I knew who the Radical was aiming at, as he pointed a neon-green ‘rifle’ down at the pool from the window of a room upstairs. But no, the Provocateur takes care of him, laying him out dead on the bed surrounded by tense onlookers, then ‘shoots’ the Veteran herself. But how did she know who’d be down at the pool? Was the Operative in charge, giving her directions? I’ll never know. But going along for the ride was still an awful lot of fun.