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SummerWorks’ Mexe melds traditional dance with new tech

Jafari Moore and Nathan Pruitt performing a demo at a SummerWorks launch party on July 17 at Gardiner Museum.

Patricia Marcoccia

It's a fusion of old and new worlds: ancient dance and wearable tech. Mexe (which means "move" in Portuguese) traces the story of capoeira martial arts/dance in a live performance augmented by technology and sound, and is playing as part of SummerWorks' 25th anniversary program.

"Capoeira is a sacred tradition that [can be performed] barefoot, simply, in a park or any circle, but what I'm interested in is taking new media, or science-fiction elements, blending them together and seeing what happens," says Mexe's creative director Maziar Ghaderi. "My idea was: If media is being triggered by the movement of the performers in real time, how does that change the relationship between the audience and performer, and the audience and a story?"

At the corner of Queen Street West and Shaw Street in Toronto, the incense burned and bodies were painted white, blue, yellow and green. Muscular men warmed up with high kicks and jumping jacks, while women in white greeted those sitting around a yellow fabric circle, inviting us to plug in our headphones. Two female dancers then set the narrative in dance and song: bare feet stomping on matted grass, bellowing lines about the importance of family and connectedness.

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Using a gyroscope and accelerometer hidden in the belts of the performers, the music and special effects corresponded with the performers' motions as they danced around the circle and spun the yarn. The associated soundscapes are intended to be synchronized with movements – such as the sounds of bird calls and crickets in the early acts, and raw, glitchy, distorted effects (not unlike that of a video game) in others.

Ghaderi says he chose capoeira for this experiment due to its improvised and playful qualities. Inspired by his time living in Brazil, the director says he studied the movements and music of the martial arts/dance to make the most from an addition of wearable tech.

The show's technical director Stephen Surlin controlled the soundscapes using the Ableton Live 9 audio program with a wireless live tracking iPad. African and Brazilian music, rain and waves, clanking chains, voice recordings and other sounds would flow from one channel in the headphones to another, depending on the timing and location of the performers.

The interdisciplinary group had only been practising together since early July; the two female leads brought their African dance backgrounds to the show, while the men are mixed martial arts fighters. Both Ghaderi and Surlin have media arts backgrounds and initially met while studying at OCAD. Together, the team integrated the capoeira influence by working with capoeira school Axé Capoeira Toronto, which had performers present for a live-music portion of the show in its final act, before the entire cast (and crowd) broke out in spontaneous dance.

With or without the wearable tech, the dancers were obviously enjoying themselves. Capoeira isn't polished and precise: It's sweaty and instinctive, and works well with the traditional African moves performed by the pair of women. Looking into the whites of each other's eyes, their engagement was sometimes jarring and ungraceful, but then so was the soundscape. There were real grins if a kick would land.

Ghaderi says he's in the business of "creating metaphors to represent the divine through abstract mediums." He was inspired to bring together an ancient dance with the evolving practice of contemporary technology "to make room for this spontaneous expression."

But there should be a good reason to use interactive technology for a live event, he says. "There are just so many things that can go wrong … and if you put the tech before the concept, it can turn gimmicky … the main thing to remember is that there must be a meaningful relationship."

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The Brazilian/Portuguese music kept the crowd's toes tapping and the story arc intensified along with the dance fighting. Men did flips, and their story ended somewhat abruptly with the African/capoeira dancers inexplicably awakened to present-day Toronto (where curious spectators beyond the SummerWorks enclosure stopped to watch) to be revived by the live capoeira contingent for a final number. It was much less effective, but forgivable, as everyone joined in the song and dance.

Mexe runs Aug. 13 to 15 at Shaw Park in Toronto (mexeshow.ca).

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