Controlled chaos: choreographer Shay Kuebler is on a quest for balance

A scene from Shay Kuebler's creation Telemetry. Photo: David Cooper

Vancouver-based choreographer Shay Kuebler, through his company Radical System Art, is known for his radical and extremely physical work that seeks to understand and communicate through the human form. It’s something to see. His show Telemetry will be at the National Arts Centre this week, but before the show he answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. For those not familiar with you and your work, can you tell me about when and how you started in dance?

A. I started dancing at the age of 12 but this was really influenced by my foundation in martial arts and theatre at the age of five. Those two art forms created the foundation from which I began to study dance and a number of different techniques in dance. This originally started in hip-hop dance would eventually lead into ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance training as well.

Q.  Could you please talk about your choreography in general terms?

A. Radical System Art is based on a martial art philosophy that attempts to find the balance between the natural self and the trained self. I’ve studied in multiple martial arts and dance techniques and over the past 10 years I’ve been attempting to find methods of supporting and interconnecting different techniques of physical arts. My work is definitely very physical and in some ways rough in that sense, but at the same time it carries a lot of finesse and precision. Therein lies one goal of balance: the natural self (wild and untrained) with the trained self (controlled and less free). I attempt to create pieces that are highly technical and skillful but also try to remain human and a bit raw. An attempt at balance.

Q. I was intrigued by this idea of the Adonis complex that has popped up in coverage of your career. You seem to have definite opinions and concerns about body image for men? Why?

A. I have been cross-training for a number of years to recover from and protect against injuries as well as to increase my overall health. From being around gym culture I started to research the extreme sides of health fitness and bodybuilding, and really the misrepresentation of health in the media. I created a full-length solo work that attempted to speak about hyper-masculinity, the industries of health and success, and the corporatization of the male body. As a dancer and someone who creates with his physical vessel to such a degree, mortality is always staring back at you with a greater intensity. Body image is even more exposed and extreme nowadays with social media and everyone having cameras in their phones. It felt like the appropriate time artistically and politically to talk about this topic from the most authentic perspective I have, which is the male perspective.

Shay Kuebler. Photo: Albert Nichols

Q. How does that fit into your work?

A. Body image was specific to the full-length solo work Feasting on Famine but definitely social themes will continue to be relevant and important in future creations.

Q. Telemetry is the work you are bringing to Ottawa. What was the spark for the piece? 

A. I heard about the science of telemetry from a friend in Scotland who used it as a tool to track wolves in the wild. Telemetry was the science behind using sound to measure and gauge the physical movements and patterns of the wolves. From this conversation, I realized how the science of telemetry and the use of a telemeter was so connected to dance and physical expression. In dance, the body is so clearly a telemeter — a tool that receives and transmits sound and wireless information into a physical form. This initial idea would lead down the path of creation and research behind telemetry and an investigation into the wireless information our body carries as well as the purity of physical expression and the physical body’s connection to sound.   

Telemetry looks at a number of ways the human body carries this information, with a lot of the choreographic structure being based around the physical translation of radio sciences, memory, history and the decay of both time, sound and memory. The arc of the piece was formatted to reference a sound wave, something that spikes/peaks at the beginning and then slowly decays and echoes out to stillness. This notion also connects to the physical body and its decay. The piece is very open to interpretation and places a great focus the physical and visual purity of the elements, but embedded in the performance are these conceptual ideas.

Q. When the Ottawa audience witnesses the show, what will they see?

A very physical and visually rich work that integrates live video, live lighting and live sound around a diverse dance language of tap, contemporary, house and bebop footwork.    

Q. At the centre of it is a tap dancer. Why tap? 

Telemetry is about sound being harnessed in the a physical/tactile form. Tap dance to me is one of the purest expressions of sound being received and transmitted through the body. It is by far the most musical of dance forms and its balance of music and dance makes it the perfect source point for Telemetry. I also have a great passion and love for  tap dance and have always wanted to work with the art form in a different context. 

Q. I have read that your earlier work was more theatrical with a narrative and “incorporating” socio-political concerns. True? Why?

A. I’ve continued to bounce back and forth from socio-political themes and more pure dance works. I grew up with theatre and martial arts in my background and I believe both art forms pushed a necessity for a greater purpose to physical movement and expression. From this standpoint, I always look for a greater reason to physical choices and choreography in relation to conceptual and socio-political themes. The more connected the physical material is to an idea, I feel the more an audience can understand and therefore connect further to the performer. This doesn’t have to always be so transparent and clear, but the aim is that the audience can more deeply connect to the performer and their physical performance. 

I felt, however, that after doing sociopolitical themed and theatrical projects for a couple of years I wanted to try something different to challenge myself as an artist, but also to find different instigations and inspirations for creation. Telemetry was something that was more based on the physical language of dance and the connection of the body to sound. The conceptual ideas expanded from this in other projects the physical ideas expanded from the conceptual. This change in direction felt necessary at that point in my career and now I’m finding myself drawn back to creating work with a more theatrical and socio-political tone. 

Q. Telemetry debuted about a year ago. What’s next?  

A. We have a new ensemble work premiering in March 2019 around value systems and the art of rhetoric. The recently premiered Feasting on Famine may have some touring opportunities. There’s also the potential research of a new project all around media, social point systems and social isolation.   

Q. B.C. has been a hot bed for dance in Canada for some time. Why do you think this is happening there.  

A. I grew up in Edmonton and for a lot of us from the west, Vancouver is a great option for education and career opportunities in dance. There’s both commercial and theatre based opportunities in Vancouver and I feel that this is one of the reasons it has drawn so many talented artists from  western Canada. Vancouver also offers some very strong and diverse dance training programs and I believe these programs have a played a significant role in both the development of artists as well as encouraging artists to travel to Vancouver. Furthermore, as B.C.-based companies have grown and gained notoriety, I think this has further raised the profile of the city across Canada and increased awareness about the vibrancy of the community.

Telemetry Featuring Shay Kuebler and Radical System Art
Where: Azrieli Studio, National Arts Centre
When: April 26-28 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.