The child inside you will flip out at the sight of big helium balloons floating around the black box theater inside 12th Avenue Arts, where choreographer KT Niehoff and approximately seven million collaborators are staging a multimedia brainsplosion called Before We Flew Like Birds We Flew Like Clouds.
A sense of wonder and anticipation build in the room as you watch the balloons collide midair and stick together like supersized molecules. The floating objects draw your attention to the ceiling and walls plated with gray flats onto which lighting designer Amiya Brown projects pools of blue light and comet-like bits of melted film. The place feels like a planetarium, and you're seeing it all from one of several swivel chairs scattered around four mini-stages where the dancers perform.
Dressed up like a galaxy in a gown of blue-black rose petals strung with white Christmas lights, Niehoff completes the cosmic scene and initiates the performance once she glides into the space from a dark corner of the theater. The beat drops and synth-heavy R&B by Zeke Keeble fills the room. "If you could, would you float? Would you fly? Would you stay high?" Niehoff sings. The music and the singing sound like a musical-theater version of Portishead.
As you might be able to tell by the previous three paragraphs of description, there's a lot going on in Before We Flew Like Birds. Using dance, short virtual-reality films, sound recordings of Radiolab-like interviews, music, and, as I mentioned, giant helium balloons, Niehoff and a deep bench of artists—including a person who makes "neck sculpture," Amy Turner Clem—endeavor to convey the experiences of four different people in a state of extreme duress: a speed skater in the middle of a superfast turn, an astronaut blasting off and floating in space, a paraplegic rower rowing, and a heart-attack survivor seconds before (and after!) death.
Immediately, Niehoff runs into the oldest art challenge ever, and her solution is somewhat overwhelming. The whole project of art, at a basic level, is to get inside someone else and make them feel or think the thing the artist is feeling or thinking. But the tools each form uses to enter the body are different and limited in their own way. Painters, for instance, work with images and textures, but not time. (Since tragedy is temporal, it's often harder to cry at paintings than at, say, films, which have all kinds of tools—sound, image, time, language, movement.) In Before We Flew Like Birds, Niehoff wants you to feel what it's like to float in space, to execute that turn, to nearly die... and her strategy seems to be to bombard your sensorium with several interconnected elements from as many different mediums as she can muster all at once.
In an environment where discursive visual and physical metaphors are coming at you every second, OTN-ness can be a virtue. As a result, the singing and dancing contributed less to the project than the podcasts. In a prerecorded interview, for instance, paraplegic rower Michael Grady explains to Niehoff his complex rowing process as dancers perform a stylized version of the movements he describes. The combination of their moves, his voice, and the amazing water sounds on the recording transform a purely auditory experience into a full-on 3-D immersion, but I felt less connected to his experience because it was being filtered through another layer of artifice—in this case, dance—which has its own limitations of expression. Sometimes the sheer volume of high-quality stimuli competing for my attention diluted the potential emotive power of the individual performances and put me in a state of perma-FOMO. Should I look through the VR finder, or look at the dancers, or pay attention to the interview, or try to recall the lyrics of the song that introduced this segment, or or or?
Conceptually, I can see this superabundance as commentary on art's inability to fully transfer experience from one person to another, but that idea gets a lot of play in different ways throughout the show. My favorite example happens in the interview between Niehoff and Soyeon Yi, resident of Puyallup and the first Korean in space. At one point, she reaches for metaphor, one of language's few ways to enter the body, to describe what it's like to feel three Gs of force: "It feels like three people sitting on your chest," she says. "Eight Gs feels like eight people." Because she was using figurative language, I could really imagine that weight pushing down on my chest.
But then when Niehoff asks Yi how being in space changed her, Yi gives her answer in Korean. Obviously, Korean speakers in the audience would know what she was saying and would have had the intimate experience of hearing Yi answer in a suddenly familiar tongue. As I don't speak a word of Korean, the move for me served as a metaphor for language's inability to adequately translate emotions or experience. That was a perfect, smart, elegant, beautiful way to tell a story and simultaneously point to the deficiencies of storytelling.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't need a short VR film directed by Dacia Saenz to accompany Yi's story, but I wasn't sorry to have it. (Stranger Genius Award nominee Sandy Cioffi, Gretchen Burger, Norma Jean Straw, and Angie Harrison all contributed films, by the way, and you can view them all, non-VR style, using an app created by Jacob Fennell at jacobfennell.com/FLC.)
Through that little viewfinder, I witnessed a twee trip involving Yi, Rattlesnake Lake, and a giant, neon, computer-generated molecule that added a dose of humor and quirky intrigue to the heaviness of some of the stories. Like the rest of the show, it was a lot to look at, intellectually compelling enough to think about for days afterward, and full of heart-lifting balloons.