Are you reading this at a computer? What’s your posture like? Are you hunched over with your neck compressed? Are you sitting with your ankles crossed and tucked under the chair? Is your spine curving over like overcooked spaghetti? In short, are you gently wrecking yourself as you read?
My desk posture is horrible. My feet don’t quite touch the ground (go ahead, laugh) so I have a box filled with books to rest them on (go on, I’ll wait) but I often opt for twisting my legs around one another instead. A cool 60% or so of my job involves typing at a keyboard and if I stop concentrating and slump, by the end of the day the base of my neck and the muscles between my shoulder blades are humming with pain.
Imbalance, Joli Vyann’s piece exploring life in a technologically obsessed era, opens with Jan Patzke and Olivia Quayle hunched over laptops on opposite ends of a table, lit only by the all-too-familiar blueish glow. Their desk posture is as horrible as mine.
As soon as they begin to move, and certainly – necessarily – as soon as they leap in to one of their impressive acrobalance routines, their posture is excellent, and the contrast is both striking and alarming. Though Imbalance’s primary theme is the psychological and social toll that too much time online takes on one’s life, the subtle violences done to the physical body when held captive by a phone or computer are also explored.
Dougie Evans’s jittery sound design makes ample use of ringtones, notification pings and Skype and email sound effects, often echoing or overlaying them until they become distorted and disturbing. The very familiarity of the noises, like the familiarity of the blue light, the hunched shoulders and the preoccupied face, is the root of the soundscape’s queasy power.
It is, of course, the acrobalance sequences that steal the show, occasionally making the dance sections seem a little baggy – I still can’t quite believe I’ve seen Quayle coolly perform a grand développé à la seconde while perched on the top of Patzke’s head like a really extravagant hat – but Joli Vyann do have an impressive emotional range. Another segment at that dreaded, posture-destroying table sees Patzke and Quayle tick and freeze through a series of held postures: hunched over, checking notifications, turning away from one another, standing up twitchily, swigging from cold coffee. It’s repeated at gathering speed, and evokes the anxious stress of the labour needs to be done at a computer (in this case, it is hinted, funding applications for a dance piece…).
A particularly humorous and telling sequence sees Quayle and Patzke perform a series of climbs and balances while they are each preoccupied with their phones. At one point, Quayle is stood on one of Patzke’s thighs with a foot hooked around his neck to keep her from falling, precariously making arrangements to meet a friend over a phonecall while Patzke pulls back against her weight; a few gravity-defying leaps later, Patzke has Quayle under his arm and close to horizontal, both supporting her but also preventing her from moving.
After a strange voiceover collage about online bullying between schoolchildren – the most abrupt and imperfectly integrated part of the whole piece – Quayle and Patzke move to comfort and then connect with one another directly, phones and laptops stowed away. They begin to move at a more lyrical, thoughtful pace, in opposition to the rough-hewn, fizzy energy of earlier sequences.
It is great to watch, but it also is a slick bit of symbolism. For as long as both performers are primarily engaging with their phones, they are cavalier with one another and wind up only going through the motions of ‘support’, often inconveniencing one another. Worse still, for as long as they’re phone-stunned, their bodies are that much more precarious and at risk from pain and injury.
Charming, droll and just the right amount of sentimental, Imbalance is a fun and entertaining investigation of a very modern malaise. And, best of all, I didn’t see anyone check their phone once, not even during the standing ovation.
Imbalance was on as part of the London International Mime Festival 2017. Click here for more details.