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Power Moves Forever Quest

Dancers recreate video-game worlds in this surreal production

Photo: Philip Laubner, License: N/A, Created: 2011:04:29 10:52:34

Philip Laubner

Rachel Boss levels up.

Power Moves Forever Quest

By Claire Côté

At the 5th Dimension May 6 and 7 at 8 p.m.

Onstage, the young woman in the red action suit takes a runner’s standing-start stance. Behind her on the white stage backdrop are projected images done in simple blocky animations and screaming hot colors. The music starts up and she begins bouncing in place. She sort of runs in place a bit, before moving forward, a sort of exaggerated motion that looks like running but doesn’t move as fast. A few steps on, she comes across a trio of young women, who sit on the stage, knees up, moving legs back and forth like the mouth of a trap. The red-clad women takes a step between the legs of the first woman, her legs close, and the red-clad woman dies a figurative death: Her arms go up, her face expresses some nonspecific woe, and her body wiggles as she withers in place. At the same time, above the music, you hear a buzzing electronic tone fall from high to low register. And then the red-clad woman returns to her starting place, assumes the sprinting stance and resumes bouncing in place, and the scene begins again. This time, she successfully navigates the leg traps.

If the above scene sounds suspiciously like a video game, it’s supposed to. Baltimore-based Goucher College graduate Claire Côté—dancer, Effervescent Collective member and choreographer, and visual artist—came up with the idea for a video-game inspired dance piece, to follow gaming’s looks, movements, sounds, and narrative structures. She recruited friends/artists Bri Bowman, John Marra, Isa Leal, Josh Hewitt, and Alex Vizzio to form a “game development team” to create its worlds and levels. Clarissa Gregory, Marra, Kaitlin Murphey, and Marcela Villa were tapped to create the piece’s costumes and puppetry. Choreography for these levels and characters was created in collaboration with the dancers. The piece’s leads—Player 1 (Erin Reid), the young woman in red, and Player 2 (Rachel Boss), who wears blue—used their video game knowledge to come up with their player’s movements. Chris Balint came up with video art to be used during the production. And soundtrack music was provided by Dan Breen, Dan Deacon, Josh Van Horne, Martin Kasey, and Chase O’Hara, with live sound effects provided by a small ensemble. The result is the fascinatingly ambitious Power Moves Forever Quest, a roughly one-hour multimedia performance/narrative dance production that is a bit all over the place. And if you’re, like this writer, at all video-game illiterate, it’s a tad overwhelming.

Premiered at last weekend’s Transmodern Festival, PMFQ is a strange mashup of low-tech means, high-concept vision, and a total commitment to this singular idea. Despite the number of collaborators, everything about the production is remarkably of a piece. The stage is a multilevel white construction that allows for upper and lower levels, with space beneath the stage for dancers to exit/enter and space under the apron for video images to be projected or dancers to occupy. Hanging from the ceiling are ordinary but shiny golden CDs, which Player 1 occasionally punches with her fist (cue wiggly electronic sound effect). A box with a question mark hangs from the ceiling house stage right, which Player 1 sometimes punches and obtains a special tool or skill needed to defeat one of the many travails/foes that come her way.

Those foes are especially impressive. They almost always come in a group of three, and their costumes and movements are slight variations on things you might find in the natural world. A trio of women wearing costumed arms and upper torsos of strong apes bounds onstage hunched over and rocking back and forth. Three women enter bent over in a way to mime a fish swimming, their arms over their backs with triangular shapes on their hands that resemble fins; when they cross to the front of the stage, the flip sides of those fins come together to form shark mouths. In an inspired bit of costuming and movement coming together, three blue-green clad women hold ribbon-tentacled umbrellas held over their heads; opening and closing the umbrellas suggests the wave-like motion of a jellyfish. That creativity pops up elsewhere too: In one of PMFQ’s wittiest decisions, scene changes are marked by a rail-thin guy in a suit and wearing the most DIY Daft Punk spaceship helmet ever over his head bounding around the stage carrying a sign like the eye candy who marks rounds in a boxing match. His sign reads data loading . . . .

The story itself, presumably, follows the multilevel-with-obstacles course of an adventure video game. From City World, a black hole sucks Player 1 into the video game Forever World, from which she has to escape by maneuvering through the obstacles. An introductory video to Forever World informs Player 1 of her number of lives (five), how to get more (collect coins), how to defeat the obstacles (gain Power Moves by unblocking them through the Mystery Cube). The prologue/intro is actually a little slow going at first, though the more video-game familiar may find it all rather familiar. Player 2 (a guess here) first gets sucked through the black hole into Forever World, Player 1 battles with four women clad in hose to get the pair of athletic shoes she wears for the remainder of PMFQ, and come the next scene Player 1, who enters the production wearing what looks like a red leotard top and stretch pants, is now clad in the red-with-stripes action suit—think surfing wetsuit, but made for action—that she wears for the rest of the performance.

And Reid, especially, deserves kudos. She spends a majority of the hour running time onstage, PMFQ’s de facto protagonist. And she spends most of that time doing extremely codified movements. She’s almost always mock running around. When she jumps, she turns, faces where she’s going to jump, squats a bit, and then leaps and lands with both feet. She punches the CD “coins” by leaping off one foot and raising a single fist into the air. And she does it all with, like, one of three expressions on her face the whole time. There’s the surprised woe of the withering death. There’s the elated look of victory whenever Player 1 completes a level and jumps up and down extending her arms into the air. And there’s the placid-but-eyes-exaggeratedly-widened look that she wears almost every single other second. Player 1 is a video game’s character of limited expression and action, and Reid somewhat heroically pulls off that strange feat.

This limited vocabulary is what makes PMFQ feel a bit like a ballet, much to Côté and her collaborative team’s credit. Both video games and ballet involve their own structured movements that have some meaning, and PMFQ grafts the awkward, jerky movements of video game animations onto the human body. And, like ballet, it looks like the process of doing it takes a physical toll. This writer caught it twice—on Friday and Saturday nights—and there was a noticeable difference between the two performances. The audience sounded much more responsive Friday night and the energy level of the production was more intense. The entire cast is dancing in rather unorthodox ways, and Reid practically runs for an entire hour. That they might be a tad tired is to be expected.

PMFQ’s biggest problem—to an observer undereducated in both ballet and video games—is that it starts to feel merely like an act of mimicry. Make no mistake—it is a remarkably grandiose act of mimicry, given the number of people involved and the creative chutzpah it took to pull this off so effectively. But after two viewings, it reads like an impressive translation of video game make-believe to live-action set piece. Perhaps a pair of eyeballs/brain more attuned to gaming and ballet could glean something more substantial from its storyline, from its movements, from its total vision. It’s arguably the only thing of its kind at the moment, but it remains a bit of a fabulously realized blank slate.

It does leave one resounding impression, and it might merely be generational. Power Moves Forever Quest is a production conceived by a woman and realized predominantly by young women, but when you read about video games and their effect on young people, you almost always reads about how it’s affecting young boys: violent video games and their effects on boys’ sleep, how games hinder boys’ learning, how boys’ brains are more susceptible to video game addiction, whatever. Here’s a video-game-inspired artwork created by women who obviously played video games as girls. Maybe, just maybe, whatever development problem attributed to video games doesn’t reside with the toys, but with the boys.

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