Megan Mazarick's "Avatard'

Through the virtual looking glass: Planet Cunningham?

When mundane events meet post-modern physicality.
When mundane events meet post-modern physicality.

Megan Mazarick's playful and imaginative Avatard joined the illusionistic cultures of video games and science fiction into a loopy mix at the Community Education Center. Beyond its entertaining amalgam of satire and humor, this dance theater piece provided enough well-crafted content to conjure Merce Cunningham experimenting with his "motion capture" and Life Forms software to ask questions of reality and perception.

The piece begins in a thoughtfully reconfigured CEC space with three guys (Brad Ellis, John Peery and Jumatatu Poe) clicking away at video games while looking at us, the passive audience. We viewers are the subject of their manipulative and increasingly aggressive play and movements. The audience soon returns to comfortable passivity when the real objects of their game appear to be the ruler and war captain from the Planet Klygon (Mazarick and Alex Holmes), who appear behind a scrim upon which video images also are projected. So begins a clever interplay of characters from real life and virtual reality.

A jaunt through the audience

Mazarick, who also created the clever video design, and Holmes endearingly embody these virtual characters through staccato, stop-action yet fluid movements, combined with a Buster Keaton stone-faced affect. The piece evolves further as our guys move behind the scrim into the world of their imagination.

The women's electronically altered voices work well, in contrast to the unaltered verbal offerings of the guys, which range from the humorous to the lame to the inaudible. The piece concludes with the performers collectively entering white spacesuits for a jaunt through empty rows of the CEC audience space— an ending that's too tame and uninspired.

In the process of clownishly spoofing the obsessions of youth (Peery's program bio describes him as a real-life video game champion), Avatard does address the issues that a very serious Merce Cunningham, using more high-tech devices, has focused on for almost 20 years. In this delightful, low-tech affair, Mazarick also asks what are the differences between human and technologically generated movement, and between the realities that we perceive, imagine and create through technology.

A milestone for CEC

The Mazarick work was part of the CEC's New Edge Resident artist series. A talented crew will appear in coming performances: Martina Plag (May 8-10); Shavon Norris (May 15-17), and Meredith Rainey (June 19-21).

This is also the 25th anniversary of the presentation of new dance and performance at the CEC when, in the mid-'80s, an enterprising Temple MFA graduate, Nancy Frankel, began a performance series, which the CEC's indomitable director, Terri Shockley, has sustained into the present. The CEC has reliably remained one of Philadelphia's few venues dedicated to nurturing new work of performing dance and theater artists. â—†