The best word to describe Apex Dance’s latest multimedia performance at The Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder, Pixelated? Ambitious. That’s ambitious for a large company let alone one so small. Integrating choreography by Apex Artistic Director David Reuille (pronounced Roy”), imaginative costumes by Marcelle McKay-Chamlee, a slew of digital projections and live video streams co-created by Marcin Biegunajtys and Reuille, music ranging from Mahler to Pretty Lights, and a futuristic narrative combining aspects of Greek mythology and Alice in Wonderland, the performance follows Artie, “The Artist”, through a journey of love, loss and finally redemption.
The uncurtained stage at The Dairy Center reveals a domestic setting with a dining table and two chairs towards the front of downstage left, a white leather armchair, an empty bookshelf, set of speakers, and a projection of a wall with two artworks upstage and center, and a white door and frame front of downstage right. The performance begins with Artie and The Lover flirtatiously competing to sit in the same chair. The choreography is fun yet loving and intimate. Alfred Smith, who came to Denver originally to perform with Kim Robards Dance in 2004, plays Artie. His passion and joy for dance make him a pleasure to watch and his immersion into character feels like an actor’s. Abigail Barnes, also a former Kim Robards company member, plays The Lover; her precision and grace provide a lovely counterpoint to Smith’s exuberance.
Reuille makes the smart narrative decision to put these characters into trouble after this initial scene. The Lover exits through the white door. The projection switches to a night road scene that puts the audience in the driver’s seat for a head-on collision. It’s clear from the following time shift scene that the driver’s point of view was actually The Lover’s, leaving Artie alone, wrecked, lost and hopelessly nostalgic. We watch Artie watch a video of past memories. While I can appreciate the effort and goals of the video to increase the audience’s empathy for Artie’s loss, the fiction writer in me would have wanted the video’s scenes to be more specific, concrete and unique to these two people instead of the generic and sentimental scenes offered. We then see Artie paralyzed with grief and trapped in his house, unable to exit through the door that he believes took his love’s life.
After this, time passes, as it always does, but Artie remains stagnant in his sorrow, sunk into the white leather chair and zombified by the online alternate reality he turns to for solace. He creates an online avatar – a white male, which felt extremely unsettling, even if the choice was due to the practical reason of Smith, black, and Reuille, white, being the only two men in the company. That said, Reuille sprinkles bits of humor throughout the performance, especially with Artie’s online platform’s interface. Artists of all types often eschew humor in the hope of being labeled as a “serious artist” but, as Reuille wisely shows, a single well-placed joke can confront a host of emotions and philosophical ideas at once: grief, pain, self-medication, what is real, the morality of binge consumption, isolation, true intimacy vs. false connectivity. The first message that pops on Artie’s interface: “You have been online far too long. Would you like to schedule a therapy session?” He chooses “No” and, like Pygmalion, the mythical king of Cyrpus, he seeks out a series of the wrong women. He proceeds first into a party room, then into a blind date before opting for an online tango therapy session that ultimately fails, followed by a video game fight with Gamer_Girl and an awkward IRL (In Real Life) meet up with her flesh-and-blood self, Nervous_Girl.
His failed online therapy session dictates an in-person session and the therapist, played by Kimberly Chmielewski who also played the tango instructor, arrives at his door. As both the sultry tango instructor and buttoned-up therapist, Chmielewski radiates power, control, and beauty in her movements. Like Barnes, her impeccable technique, from her expressive fingers to her oh-so pointed toes, slices through the air and across the stage with the ease. A particularly profound moment occurs when Chmielewski stands behind Smith with her arms wrapped around him as her hands thrum gain and again off his chest until she leaves him with his hands clasped over his heart, desperately trying to keep it one piece.
Artie, in a flash of inspiration and desperation, creates an avatar for his deceased lover. As he waits for the avatar to load, the women from his virtual past reemerge for an assembly line. Finally, The Lover’s avatar, Pixel, loads and Artie’s joy sparks his imagination that she steps out of the interface and into his arms. He falls into a deep sleep, perhaps for the first time since her death, and Pixel, like the sculpture Galatea, comes to life. The birth scene, my favorite in the entire performance, has Barnes dancing on a chair with two projections: the first onto her body, which made her look like a 3-D pixelated version of herself, and the second, a digital gesture sketch of Barnes’ body in real time, onto the back wall. The scene’s haunting yet gorgeous combination of movement, form, and sound was flawless and completely mesmerizing.
Artie then awakens to the doorbell and Pixel, alive and outside the interface. Again, they dance together, this time Artie even more ecstatic. But Pixel keeps moving towards the door and reaching for the knob. In his desperation to keep her with him and safe, Artie pulls her back again and again until she flees back into the interface. His fears about the door, and the outside world, surmount as a swarm of black-cloaked bodies infiltrate his home. The choreography here, wonderfully sinister yet attractive, did much to show Artie’s mental state. Yet the projections of snakes, maggots, and spiders felt like they were trying too hard to be scary. During this section, I kept wondering if there wasn’t a better way to show Artie’s real fear of the outside world and losing his love again then a close-up of creepy crawlies. While the projections did make me uncomfortable, that discomfort had nothing to do with Artie’s fears. I desperately wanted to feel empathy for him in this moment, but the projections only made me feel disgust.
The therapist then comes a second time and Artie tries to explain Pixel to her but she only thinks he’s gone deeper into his grief. Afterwards, he falls asleep again and Pixel, back in the interface, explores his browsing history: first ingénue at the romance café, then Gamer_Girl, and Party_girl_069. Artie wakes to find Pixel and the other women and, like Alice stepping through the looking glass, steps into the digital world, chasing after Pixel until he brings her back into the real world. Once back in the real world, they echo the performance’s very first scene, going from chair to chair until Pixel finally walks out the door. Left alone, Artie wrestles with himself. He can stay in his house, repeating his online experiences in a perpetual loop or he can walk out the door and follow Pixel into the world. We hover with him in this moment for what feels like an eternity, hoping that he’ll walk out the door.
While Pixelated has a few glitches, it remains an accessible yet powerful work that questions our current and future relationship with the virtual world through a complex, emotional narrative. Like Jonze’s 2013 film, Her, it probes the emotional risks and rewards of intimacy, our conflicting desires for connection and isolation, and the reasons we hide in virtual reality. I look forward to what Reuille conjures up next.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog, Daily Serving and KYSO Flash.