Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
August 1, 2017
The Edinburgh performance of WHIST takes place on the foyer of the grand, stately Festival Theatre, with patterned red carpets, and that abandoned feeling unique to empty theatres. It’s a vibe that clashes with WHIST’s exploration of new territory, but also seems apt to an art form still unsure of how it works.
WHIST is conceived by AΦE artistic directors Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi in collaboration with a wealth of artists from across several forms, highlighting its happy straddling of genres. Freudian sculptures from set designer James Shaw, dotted across the floor, form the landscape and trigger points for the its virtual reality. The experience begins as a series of instructions (‘don’t move around while the videos are playing’, ‘you can sit down, look up or down’), which feel oddly disorientating, although enjoyable in their novelty: when does WHIST begin, when are you ‘immersed’?
The videos themselves are associative, non-sequential scenes that explore concepts rather than following clear narratives. WHIST is fairly blunt in its appropriation of Freudian ideas, with some images more captivating than others: a plate of hearts being dished around the table; a room of four walls being pulled apart into an unlimited, starry night. The dancers themselves commit to the idea, but it is hard to empathise or connect with a slightly grainy filmed image, which loses some of the intimate details.
As you would expect with VR, it is your placement in the image that is exciting. The plate of hearts is not simply being dished out. You, the viewer (or more aptly, the voyager), are standing upon that plate, being eagerly appraised. There is a constant itch to look behind you, a desire to spread out into the sky. This last impulse has to be dampened slightly for fear of hitting your fellow participants. In many ways WHIST builds on the tropes of horror, building on the things we miss and exploiting our uncertainty of the 360-degree VR world.
WHIST aims to explore your unconscious desires, but in many ways it is more a demonstration of conscious choices. Where do you look next? How do you situate yourself in the space? How long do you focus on something? For dance as performance, this conscious movement is enjoyable. A prickling of the skin and a further awareness of depth and space add to and alter the usually visual experience of performed movement.
I found myself wondering after WHIST what it would be like, as a VR participant, to be placed in the middle of a virtual corps de ballet, the violence of their steps surrounding your VR world. WHIST is an experience that is memorable more for its novelty than its content but it marks an intriguing new step for dance and physical theatre.