Augmented Reality, Live: A response to Nature Theater of Oblivia
In>Time Performance Festival: Nature Theater of Oblivia and Impossible Dances, BADco.
Friday, February 22nd, 7:00pm, Links Hall *
image credit: In>Time Performance
The In>Time Performance Festival is winter-long performance festival taking place in several performance venues across Chicago. This festival happens only once every 3 years, so I felt lucky to catch it this time around. On Friday, February 22nd at Links Hall, I attended a split bill of two foreign companies: Oblivia, an interdisciplinary, minimalist theater troupe from Helsinki, and BADCo., and collaborative performance collective from Zagreb, Croatia. I was excited to attend a performance of unfamiliar artists in such a familiar performance venue. I went into this show knowing virtually nothing about either performance or company, save for what I read from the show’s description on at in-time-performance.org.
The first piece, Nature Theater of Oblivia, left me feeling a sense of delighted wonder and a heightened awareness of my senses. With only five performers, a fog machine, killer lighting, and an ambient sound score (both live and recorded), I became fully immersed in a day in the Finnish forest. The piece started with all five performers far downstage in handmade costumes of textured greys, whites, and greens, smiling and silently taking in the audience as if to welcome us into the space. After much silence and stillness, they began to make subtle upper body shifts and movements, becoming trees gently swaying in the breeze. I heard distant birdcalls, which I initially perceived to be coming from a recorded track. But as they continued this subtle, meditative dance, feet planted, arms swaying, I noticed their mouths were moving ever-so-slightly. It took me about 10 minutes to realize that each performer was creating a distinct and minute whistling noise, each player asserting a different bird call. The effect was delightful and mesmerizing.
From there, personalities started to show themselves. Someone transformed into a bullfrog, hopping and bobbing every so often, looking around with lazy eyes. Another transformed into an owl with wide, shifting eyes, hooting in an almost conversational way, and ruffling her feathers in haste. There is something so inherently funny about watching a human embody, or even personify, another animal. These performers were so committed to each embodiment, that even after the initial surprise and comedy, there was a depth to each study that drew me in to notice more, to listen deeper. Sometimes a performer would go from embodying an animal (owl, frog, rabbit, deer) back to a scenic object; a fallen tree, a boulder, a stump. As they continued their subtle shifts, the vocal sound score became denser and richer. There was humming, buzzing, a glottal throat sound emulating far away trees creaking in the breeze. Also present was a once-in-a-while recording of a plane passing overhead, or an ambulance, letting us know that civilization was not absent from this forest experience. There were human joggers personified as smiling caricatures, huffing and puffing a pleasant rhythm as they wove through the other forest animals and trees. At one point, they all transformed into deer, with cautious, wide-eyed gazes, specific stomping movements on the balls of the feet (or hooves, if you will), and whip-quick turns of the head. They moved into and out of unison seamlessly, sensing each other bodily much in the way I have seen wild animals do in packs. It was curiously satisfying to see how their movement patterns converged towards and diverged from one another.
At this point, my ear was trained to pick up even the subtlest of auditory difference, an effect I truly enjoyed. When the daylight began to fade, each performer eventually found stillness, and a twilit fog rolled onto the stage. Then, as if giving their sound score its climax, one performer initiated a loud, almost laughing call, head raised, facing upstage. One by one, in a precisely timed (yet seemingly organic) way, each performer echoed this loud call. Perhaps they were coyotes or wolves, though I wonder if whatever animal they chose was specific to the forests of Finland. These were loud and intimidating creatures that ran towards and away from each other in bounding leaps, beginning each run with their heads thrown back and a deep full-bodied lunge. I got the sense they were embarking on a nightly hunt, and the space became totally different for a moment; eerie, dangerous, exciting.
The moments of silence, stillness, and the subtle shifts of attention and sound in this piece are what made it so arresting. A day in a forest is not wholly full of activity, and the flow of action and inaction allowed the audience to sink deeper into this “augmented reality” dreamworld. There was no story, no plot, no through line for characters. Oblivia perfectly encapsulated a mundane day in the forest. Their specificity and commitment to the study of embodiment is what kept this piece riveting through to the end. It allowed me to understand how much work it takes for performers create ambience, and how rich that ambience can become if it is the subject of an entire hour-length piece.
(*) PRJ is partnering with Links Hall to celebrate their 40th anniversary by providing a platform for artist-to-artist responses to the work that is presented as part of the Pay-the-40th-Forward season. Thank you, Links Hall, for all that you do for the dance and performance communities in Chicago. Congratulations on 40 years!