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theatre review

Steer’s relentless assault on the senses explores a fine balance between enjoyment and impact, but it’s poignant and praiseworthyJerome Delapierre

Harbourfront Centre's World Stage festival has been presenting some of the most challenging theatre in the city, work that's untidy, formally inquisitive and can elicit a really heated audience response. These days, when I get pulled into that conversation about the relevance of live performance in an age of HBO and Netflix, I think of the stuff that director Tina Rasmussen is programming at Harbourfront, where, suddenly, my role as an audience member seems completely vital to what's happening in front of me.

There are all kinds of exciting social, communal and temporal dimensions to that experience, not to mention questions about etiquette and responsibility. When I say that I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone walk out of a World Stage show this season, I mean it as the highest praise.

Art and cruelty have been on my mind since World Stage's last show, Looking For Paul, about the controversial American artist Paul McCarthy, who makes monolithic sculptures of sex toys and sexually/scatologically abject films. The play, which I thought was excellent, ended with the most disgusting sequence of live theatre I've ever seen. It pained me to sit through, but I didn't find it in the least gratuitous. I liked that it was there.

This tension between enjoyment and impact is at the front of my mind after seeing World Stage's latest show, Steer, by dancer and choreographer William Yong (with visual designer Jerome Delapierre and sound designer Navid Navab). So too are questions around the ethics of an artist inflicting a level of sensory assault on his audience.

The solo piece, which has been in development for six years, uses a range of sophisticated sensors, video imagery, infrared light, cameras and real-time motion-capture to create what feels like a computer-generated descent into hell. There is almost no reprieve from the constantly morphing barrage of dots, shapes, pixels and colour bars, which played out on three separate screens, interspersed with images of words, skeletons, viewfinders and DNA-like helixes. The soundscape of whining, atonal, electronic feedback gets so loud, brash and insistent that, in moments, I wanted to cover my face as well my ears. Steer can be visually striking, but it isn't exactly a pleasure to watch.

That doesn't mean it isn't interesting. Consider it like a high-tech jeremiad against technology – it hurts a bit to listen, but it might be important that we do. The slender Yong, dressed in a PVC unitard, his short black hair sculpted immovably into place, uses almost no text in the work, save for a phrase he begins with and repeats later on: "I need space to think." It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for both audience and performer. Over the course of the piece, Yong traps his head (and later his whole body) in a tight neon block, as though stuck in some kind of megabyte. At the end, he duplicates an image of himself on the screen, and is soon surrounded by an army of clones in black catsuits, performing his movements in a staggered canon (via real-time capture). Meanwhile, the audience is left aching with sonic-visual claustrophobia; I'm sure I'm not the only one who exited the theatre desperate for quiet and natural light.

It's a bit like how I've felt walking out of a room full of, say, Francis Bacon paintings: The sense of horror, abjectness and entrapment enacts a real, physical toll. In fact, one of my favourite moments (if favourite can be apt here) was a sequence that made me think of Bacon's half-human ghouls. It begins with Yong bent over with arms extended, ready to flap, while a colossal bat-like image on the screen mutates into all kinds beastly – almost fleshy – shapes. Then, chillingly, the blob adopts the profile of a human face. What made this doubly terrifying was the violent gnashing sounds that went with it, like a computerized rendition of animals eating each other alive, and played at such a volume that I found it difficult to bear. But the sequence gave way to the only moment of deliverance in the show – haunting string music rising out of the horror, infecting Yong's body with softness and lyricism. The beast of technology came up against the angel of civilized beauty. We paid for this pause, this poignance, but it came through and it affected me.

However, I found other sequences too assaultive without reprieve, such as a lengthy one that involved a huge image of Yong's face, an abrasive white light and then flashing colour bars, aggressive TV snow, loud electronic static and Yong's body thrashing inside it all, victim to a disordered technological storm.

In the program notes, Yong asks: "What is the destination on the journey toward transhumanism?" While I'm not the kind of critic who has any interest in probing an artist's intentions (or who thinks that is even possible), I do wonder if Yong intended his answer to be so dark, cruel and devoid of hope. I don't mean that as criticism; the show's relentlessness gave it its own unique force. I'm not sure I'd want to sit through Steer a second time, but its effect will stay with me, which is no faint praise.

Steer continues until May 14 at the Fleck Dance Theatre at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre (