"The U.S. has a strong sense of who it is," says Aussie Gideon Obarzanek. "We don't. Part of it is because the country is so young, part of it is because we've got all this European baggage. What it leads to is an attempt to constantly reinvent and redefine ourselves through art."
Obarzanek should know: He's artistic director of popular dance troupe Chunky Move and — with Back to Back Theatre — one of two Australian performers at this year's Live Arts Festival. The two groups seem vastly different at first glance; Chunky Move performs dreamy, sensual dance, while Back to Back employs mentally challenged people to act in clever urban dramas. Their similarities, however, are more interesting.
Take their curious use of technology. With projectors, an infrared sensor and dozens of algorithms, the light and sound in Chunky Move's Mortal Engine are controlled completely by the dancers' movements. The stage is often pitch black, and the light that parrots the dancers' bodies ranges from tiny white dots to green laser beams shooting off in all directions. The music is sometimes a hardly noticeable buzz, sometimes a hearty, ambient crescendo.
Seeing (and listening to) the performance has been likened to having synesthesia. "It's as if you're hearing movement or watching sound," says Obarzanek. "You get the impression that what you're seeing is going on in someone's mind, that someone's imagination has spilled out into the real world."
Likewise, Back to Back's eccentric small metal objects calls for some electronic assistance. The troupe performs exclusively in frantic public spaces — train stations, busy intersections — without telling passers-by what's up. They furnish audience members with headphones, and throw four mic'd actors into the buzzing crowd to perform a play about a drug deal gone awry. Because of the setup, it can take up to 15 minutes for viewers to realize who the actual actors are.
"The audience will endow conversations to the wrong people," says Back to Back's artistic director, Bruce Gladwin. "As that's going on, you've got 200 audience members with headphones on, looking at seemingly nothing — which is a weird sight for the pedestrians. It's like the audience is the spectator and the spectacle at the same time."
What does all this tell us about Australians? If nothing else, that they don't do art half-assed. Sure, all artistic directors want to believe their works are engrossing, but when Obarzanek and Gladwin say you have to actively see Mortal Engine and small metal objects, they aren't bluffing. You can't passively watch dance that's creating the sound and light around you, and you can't passively watch a play that places two mentally challenged people in a real, live and possibly dangerous public space to act out a drug deal. So turn off your Twitter feeds and Google alerts for the Aussies, would ya?
// Mortal Engine, Sept. 17, 7 p.m.; Sept. 18, 8 p.m.; Sept. 19, 4 and 8 p.m.; $25-$30, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Small metal objects, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.; Sept. 17, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 18-19, 1 and 7 p.m.; $25-$30, 40th Street Field, 40th Street between Walnut and Locust streets.