ULTRA – a new work [2023], by Louise Coetzer, created for Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre

Where and when: Toyota US Woordfees 2023, at the HMS Bloemhof Hall, performances on October 7 at 20h30,  October 8 at 18h00 and October 10 at 15h00  
Tickets: R96-R160 online at Quicket at R190 at door
Booking link: https://www.quicket.co.za/events/224060-ultra/?ref=events-list#/ 

NOTE: Flashing Light Warning – ULTRA uses multimedia and lighting effects that may disturb photosensitive viewers  

For Woordfees season, the dancers are: Bronwyn Craddock, Nicolas Laubscher and Jan Kotze

Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre’s new work, ULTRA is riveting and intriguing dance theatre- an interrogation and conversation through dance theatre, of holding and embracing extremes as we hoist and balance ourselves against and through each other. We may fall – but in the fall- therein is the possibility of climax and release. ULTRA is on at the 2023 edition of Woordfees in Stellenbosch. The last performance of ULTRA, is on Tuesday, October 10 at 3pm. Get there and see this striking piece of dance theatre which has been masterfully conceptualised and choreographed by Darkroom’s artistic director, Louise Coetzer, with an original music score by Brydon Bolton. Bronwyn Craddock, Nicolas Laubscher and Jan Kotze are the dancers for the Woordfees season of ULTRA.  I have followed these dancer’s careers with interest.They bring their exceptional skills to ULTRA which is physically demanding in terms of its athleticism. Within the physicality, is the transcendence, bringing out moments of repose, gesture and performance.  As with all of Darkroom’s work, ULTRA, is multi-nuanced and layered dance theatre which is underpinned by a compelling narrative arc.

There is a warning of flashing lights and that ULTRA may “disturb photosensitive viewers”. I found aspects of ULTRA, unsettling and that feeds very much into the zeitgeist right now. We are living in unsettling and disturbing times. In a recent interview, with the TCR, Coetzer reflected: “The work echoes our current climate of extremist, reactionary colliding, and tests to what degree, the moderate and the revolutionary can co-exist.” https://thecaperobyn.co.za/interview-darkroom-contemporary-dance-theatres-louise-coetzer-talks-about-ultra/ There is war, violence and terror – flashing on our screens as we switch channels and platforms, trying to make sense of the extreme overload of information. Which vectors and pathways do we follow? I think what makes ULTRA so compelling for me is these three genderless figures are trying to calibrate as they hoist themselves into space come together and detach, within the madness of the extreme landscape that they navigate.

In ULTRA, there is a screen made of mesh panels, placed at the back of stage space. It is like a channel in which the dancers slither in and out of and against which we see the projection of text; a bricolage of scrawls, lines, words. Through this liminal scrim, the figures dance their dance of connecting and disconnecting. Within the sound and fury, there are humans, people.  As Coetzer reflected in our interview, Brydon Bolton’s electronic score “consists of five cycles, each progressively pushing the tension of the work further.” Imagine you are sitting in a hospital intensive care unit and with the graphs on the screens, one gets beeps and buzzing, this is a sense that I got with Bolton’s score, synched with the visuals on the screen and the bodies, caught up in the space- in the screens- in front – in the wings.

There is an edge-of-seat scene in ULTRA, where two figures are jammed, glued together. They battle to come unstuck.  This image of “stickiness” resonated profoundly with me in terms of working on a computer keyboard and keys become jammed, sticking. I had an experience, during the pandemic, of what is known as the “purple screen of death [PSOD].”  This is a diagnostic screen with white typeface on a purple background which is displayed when a critical error occurs. I could still work, kind of, but with this overlay of gobbledygook and flickering of error messages. It was an overload. I was mesmerised by the error messages and meaningless instructions. Although I could not make sense of the messages, scrolling down, I was glued to the screen. Watching ULTRA, pinged in terms of PSOD and very much in how the screen has become the armature of our lives, as a lens through which we see life.

I find it fascinating that during Covid, when live performance was shuttered Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre’s innovated, using screen dance as a medium in its own right. It subsequently combined aspects of technology with live performance. For instance its ground-breaking, deus::ex::machina – human geography in a virtual world, Darkroom used Telematic performance [telecommunications and information technology such as gaming interventions]. Viewers donned headsets and at points in the performance, were prompted to relay to the dancers as to what should come next. The dancers received instructions through their headsets. It was a game between viewer and dancer. See: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/interview-extending-our-realities-in-darkroom-contemporarys-deusexmachina-harnessing-technology-and-real-time-touch-and-connection/ In ULTRA, there are no headsets. Elements of multimedia have been merged with live performance, in a theatre setting. Watching ULTRA, I was reflecting back on Darkroom’s award winning body of work – including deus::ex::machina and Blame it on the Algorithm.

I saw a tech run/FDR of ULTRA on Friday in Stellenbosch as I am unable to get to the performances. I was intrigued by the precision  of Louise Coetzer, working with Oscar O’Ryan, her partner and colleague at Darkroom, as they finely tuned each scene, cuing in the sound – too loud – too soft – let’s do it again –repeat- repeat- splice – less- more- stop. There is a lot to process in ULTRA. I want to see this piece again and hope that it will be staged in Cape Town, soon.

Stickiness of connections: Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre’s new work, ULTRA is on at Woordfees 2023. Photo by Oscar O’Ryan.

Images of Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre’s ULTRA, by Oscar O’Ryan- supplied. These photos feature the dancers in ULTRA at Woordfees 2023.