Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sunday Feature: Interview with Jacob Niedzwiecki (Jacqueries)

Jacob Niedzwiecki dances to the pulse of today and the future with no fear of interesting failure
by Beat Rice

Jacob Niedzwiecki is a choreographer, filmmaker, and creative technologist whose work fuses movement, media, and code into innovative new forms. He trained as a classical and contemporary dancer and performed for several years with the National Ballet of Canada. His stage works include commissions from the TorQ Percussion Quartet and Chung-Ang Arts University in Seoul. His dance films have been shown online and at festivals around the world; his most recent short film Who By Fire (premiered in February 2013 at the Dance On Camera Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. This summer he has a new performance piece entitled Jacqueries. Charpo's Beat Rice sat down with him to learn more about his new performance endeavour.

CHARPO: Jacqueries is a piece you are working on that does not fall into any conventional performance genre. How would you sum it up?

NIEDZWIECKI: Jacqueries is a live promenade performance that works in tandem with a custom iPhone app. It is being presented by F/, which is run by myself Valerie Calam and Luke Garwood. The goal of F/ is to ingrate new media and dance. We ask what can dance look like and what can the audience experience be like here in the present.

CHARPO: Where are you and your team with the project currently?

NIEDZWIECKI: We are finishing up our creation period and getting into run-throughs. We’ve established all of our locations, found the best places for each of these scenes to live, and now we’re figuring out how to get people between them in interesting ways and how to handle all the co-ordination of the passing off of groups of people between performers, and handing off all of this information to our sound designer, John Gzowski.

CHARPO: Are you rehearsing the piece outside in the streets of Toronto?

NIEDZWIECKI: Most of our locations are outdoors; we have two scenes that take place indoor. When I was conceiving the show, one of the big parts was to find really evocative urban locations. At the same time I really wanted to avoid the trap that a lot of site-specific work falls into: if it’s really good site specific work it engages so deeply with the specific location, that work can never go anywhere else. In a way it becomes very exclusive because only people who can get to that site can ever experience it. So I was really curious-I’ve talked to a lot of people who have done site-specific work, Bill Coleman and others, and I was really looking for ways to avoid that pitfall. If I am coming at this from a very urban place, if this is really a show that lives downtown, then there’s a lot of infrastructure and standards between things like fire stairs with standards dimensions almost across North America and even worldwide. 

Niedzwiecki in performance

CHARPO: So are you looking for things that are specific or that can travel to different places?

NIEDZWIECKI: Both actually. We have discovered there are certain components of how cities are built that are almost like Lego. You can go anywhere and find similar things like jersey barriers-which are those angled concrete highway barriers. That’s a really interesting element that we’ve sort of built a scene off of, and you can be pretty confident that is something you could find in any urban location. 

CHARPO: Have you found yourself mostly around Yonge and Dundas and Ryerson area?

NIEDZWIECKI: We’ve actually rehearsed all over the city, and as I was starting the process, I think I biked every square inch of downtown Toronto. We settled on Yonge and Dundas mostly because there is a really interesting density. Biologists have a term called a ‘transect’-for example when you are exploring a new territory and you are gathering samples of insects lets say, a lot of the time you would follow the easy route, you would go down the river, or up. But a transect is the opposite, it is a straight line through an environment, in order to try and cross many different climates and microenvironments as you go, and you use that information to build up contours. We were interested in approaching the city that way, as opposed to finding a natural path that already exists. We want to take people from a busy outdoor street to a mall, to a fire exit, or an odd tucked away place like a quiet courtyard, to a classroom. We want to take people from a busy outdoor street to a mall, to a service corridor, or an odd tucked away place like a quiet courtyard, to a random “safe house” room. We wanted the effect of almost cinematically cutting between locations. So the density around Yonge and Dundas really make that possible because you have all of those things in close proximity and some of them are stacked vertically on top of each other. 

CHARPO: How many people can you take on one journey?

NIEDZWIECKI: The capacity of the show is 24. We have six dancers and we’ve built it around the idea of the maximum number of people per performer is 4 people. We wanted to keep some intimacy in that relationship. We are also aiming to have an experience where you are not shuttled between locations; we want you to be following the characters through the whole show. 

CHARPO: Let’s talk about the app a bit, and the use of technology: so the audience member is following the dancer with their phones at all times, or only at certain times? How does that work?

NIEDZWIECKI: The spine of the show uses the app for audio, that’s how we organize everybody in the show. Generally there will always be music or sound running through your headphones through the app.  On occasion you’ll be prompted to take your phone out for video content or images or other cues. Generally it’s a phone in pocket experience unless indicated otherwise.

CHARPO: So the audience will be able to watch the dancer live, and not always through the camera of a iPhone all the time-you don’t want people tripping over the sidewalk or anything like that.  

NIEDZWIECKI: That is something that we’ve been thinking about a lot. In a lot of ways this show is experimental. We want to deliver a really polished and engaging experience but at the same time we’re going to be learning a lot from our audiences. One of the core questions we asked ourselves when the performers and crew started talking about the show was…well we had all had the experience of reading books or watching movies which are ostensibly set in the present, but that are really set in an alternate version of the present where cell phones don’t really exist. So you get things like people running to the airport instead of just sending a text message. You run into these interactions, and whether or not the writer just ignores it or they do the whole “oh no my battery is dead!” moment- (cont'd)

Jacqueries trailer

CHARPO: It’s like a cop-out

NIEDZWIECKI: It is a cop-out. Either set it in the past or accept the fact that you have to generate new ways of creating tension. Come up with new story mechanics and ideas because this is the world we live in. So we were kind of curious: what could a performance look like, technically, if we made it assuming that all the performers and audience members have a smartphone. I should say now that I am not an Apple partisan, there is no sponsorship and I’m not getting commission-it’s a resource choice. We would love to have an Android app but we are working with very limited resources and we just can’t target every platform. 

CHARPO: What have you learned during the process of designing the iPhone app-‘Jacqueries’?

NIEDZWIECKI: As I was sitting down to work on the app, I instantly realized I did not want to make something that was only meant for this show. It's quite possible that we are not the only show that might want to use this. So the app is actually built so that it can load cue lists and can load content remotely. From a software point of view, (and this may only be interesting to people who have been involved in some sort of software process), but when you write a program there’s a step where you have to ‘compile’ it. So you write a bunch of code, you hit the compile button and the computer turns that code into the function app and runs that for you. And then it either breaks or works. That’s actually something I’ve been using as an idea for this whole process, where what we are trying to do is build a show that can run in different location in different cities, that can run for different number of audiences, that might need to be reconfigured based of timings or weather, so we’ve been trying to identify all these variables and then develop plans for each. I don’t know many people who could handle that, but Sharon Di Genova, who is our stage manager, is certainly one of them.

CHARPO: How do you combine programming the app with video and sound, and working with your sound designer, and also being the choreographer?

NIEDZWIECKI: Whenever you approach a new process as a creator you sort of look at what you’ve done in the past and figure out what has and hasn’t work and you sort of architect your way around that. We were lucky enough to get enough resource to take a workshop where we discovered a couple of ways to work that were successful and others that were not successful. It’s come down to me knowing what roles I have to play at different times in the production. There are weeks when I have to just be choreographing, there are weeks where I just have to be the developer. There are weeks where I have to wear ‘the everything hat’ where I’m in running rehearsal and also making small updates to the app. We have been really lucky to work with John Gzowski who is one of Toronto’s most experienced and brilliant sound designers. He brings such a wealth of both creative energy but also technical knowledge and expertise to the project. He’s done installation work and site specific and new media work, so I think it was an interesting challenge for him and he has certainly brought so much to it. 

CHARPO: Is the title Jacqueries a reference?

NIEDZWIECKI: Yes, Les Jacqueries is a French term for a medieval peasant revolt in France. It failed completely but became a general term in French and English for any sort of failed uprising, or failed attempt at a revolution. This idea of valiant failure kind of became a running idea for the process. We are talking about attempting to bring the future into the present, play with it, and give in to an audience. That creative attempt might end up being a very interesting failure. 

CHARPO: Is there a storyline or a narrative in Jacqueries?

NIEDZWIECKI: I find myself really interested in choreographers who find different ways to create and manipulate tension. It’s a basic building block of performance, whether that is dramatic or musical or physical tension. I was really curious about how we accelerate the audience experience, how do we let them know how to get to the next place. How do you turn following a person and watching he move, and imbue that with urgency and tension and getting into scenes with stakes, and how to we leave that scene with the same urgency and tension to get to the next place. If you remove the theatre space from the equation you can’t drop the theatricality. You actually have to do more work to replace the framework you are giving up and find new ways of approaching theatrical techniques.

CHARPO: Tell me about the Hannah Arendt quote on your postcard for the show, “The future is a time-bomb buried in the present. Who are they this new generation? Those who hear the ticking.”

NIEDZWIECKI: I have a weird relationship with critical theory and theoretical writing. For me, theory is interesting when it suggest ideas for experiment. Hannah Arendt wrote a book On Violence, which became one of our core texts for the show. It’s an examination on the role of violence and social change. Her main is idea is that we associate power and violence. We imagine that power uses violence to stay powerful, and she actually makes a very convincing case that the exact opposite is true, that violence arises when power breaks down. So the book is sort of a long brilliant essay on the relationship of violence and power. The whole relationship is part of the subtext of the work. It’s a part of how we build our relationship as performers together, how we build the show, and that is what’s discussed choreographically. The quote is a double quote, she is quoting Spender and she asks the question, Who is the new generation? And it’s those who hear the future ticking away, waiting to explode. Another influence on the piece was William Gibson, who is one of my favourite authors. He once said, “The future is already here; it is just not evenly distributed yet.” This show is like an attempt to stretch out a bit and bring a chunk of that future into the present and go, ‘What can we do with it?’

Jacqueries premières on July 11, 2013, and runs for ten performances over two weeks: July 11 / 14 / 18 / 21 at 7pm & 8pm, and July 12 at 9pm & 10pm. The rendezvous location is near Yonge & Dundas, at the corner of Bond & Gould Streets under the statue of Egerton Ryerson. Tickets are $20 and audience members will need an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad mini running the latest version of iOS (6.1 or later). Audiences are strongly encouraged to buy tickets in advance at For more information please visit

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