“The Dancer” & “The Speckled God”: Two from Unsung Signals

dancerThe Short Version: Penelope D’Silva is a world-famous dancer, perhaps the best alive. But attendance at her performances is dropping, even as her filmed performances continue to sell out. What can be done to recapture the magic of live performance – and how far will Penelope go to find it?

The Review: This short is an episode of Black Mirror waiting to happen. I don’t mean that to say the story reads like a film treatment – it doesn’t, at all – but rather that it reads like something that will inevitably be adapted, because it tells such a compelling and fascinating (not to mention frightening) story.

I work in the arts, although my contact with the dance world is limited to a few friends who are dancers, and the question of live or Memorex has haunted the performance communities ever since the ability to record something became widespread. There are, of course, the financial concerns: Would MetHD performances mean fewer people coming to see the live shows at the Met? Ditto NTLive? Would bootleg live recordings of concerts mean fewer people would pay for official ones, let alone concert tickets?
But what about the artistic questions: Can a filmed/recorded performance ever truly capture the spirit of a live performance? Can a live performance be captured, period? And what would happen if we could truly capture a live performance to play in perpetuity?

There are obvious upsides here, especially in the way that Rab Ferguson presents it: CineTheatres present immersive 3D presentations of performances, meaning you can go (I’m assuming for cheaper than a live performance ticket) and see the show wherever you live, whenever you want. This is a fantastic way to open the doors of performance to those who might not otherwise be able to or think they want to attend.

But, for this particular artist, she realizes that she can’t perform the same way to half-sold houses – houses that, if her own correlation is true, have been cannibalized by her own success and the success of her recordings. It is absolutely a “what if?” story and absolutely one that floats just outside of reality to some extent (nobody ever really questions her or stops to think all these things through more concretely), but the thing that makes it scary is that it is just nearly possible. And the lengths to which D’Silva must go seem terribly plausible in that regard: what else can be done to make the individual live performance inimitable? Even if the ending is a bit too Black Swan, the story still goes through the paces of these questions with skill and vigor.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

the-speckled-godThe Short Version: Forty years ago, a middle manager disappeared in the jungles of Southern India. He’d gone to follow a curiosity, a thought that maybe wasn’t even fully formed – and what he discovered can now only be pieced together by fragments of documents and conversations, but it speaks of mysterious danger…

The Review: The biggest problem I had with Marc Joan’s smart but unsatisfying novella is the scattershot structure. It reads almost as though it wanted to be an epistolary novel or to feature actual ephemera within its pages to help tell the story – but it is entirely traditional prose. I often felt like things were being described to me that I would’ve rather seen for myself – as the seeing them, the experience of understanding them, would’ve (I think) brought the terror home a little stronger.

But the concept stands and Joan takes us to Southern India and a mysterious tea plantation far removed from the rest of society. We know something terrible has happened to this ordinary auditor, Joki de Souza, and that whoever is putting together this story has done a bit of detective work to talk to those who might have answers. In some ways, the story actually does read like a case file: interviews, descriptions of letters and notebooks, even a few described photographs. The reader is allowed to put the story together at their own speed and with the tools left available to them.

I just wish there’d been more tools, if not more guidance. The problem, always, with stories that’ve passed through several sets of hands is that they’ve been degraded in some way – like a game of Telephone. Did de Souza cross the spirit of a vengeful god-like entity? Was he simply murdered? Was he murdered for crossing the beliefs of those who revere their local cobra as a god, even if it isn’t truly? Marc Joan has an answer he wants us to come to and does indeed bring us there… but unfortunately, it isn’t a satisfying answer. And not in the way that some stories end without resolution and the satisfaction is that they are unsatisfying, but rather that the story ends and you feel like you’ve missed several steps along the way. There is a larger story that exists inside of this short and I would be intrigued to read it, at that fuller length – but here, it concludes just as something interesting but ultimately unfulfilling.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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