Review: Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge

A visually stunning piece of work, Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge is back on stage in Vancouver as part of its cross-country tour that will see the show, which has already played in Whitehorse, move onto Calgary with the Alberta Theatre Project and Montreal as part of Festival Transameriques.

Originally seen in Vancouver during the 2006 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Vancouver audiences are very lucky not only that the show is back after three years but now has access to a larger audience and venue with this Electric Company and Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company co-production.

Eadweard Muybridge is a photographer of animal movement (in Muybridge’s world animals also included humans) and shot to some fame in the late 1800s by developing a technique for instantaneous motion picture capture to help then California Governor Leland Standford answer the question as to whether all four hooves of a horse left the ground at the same time.

Studies in Motion

Along with his horse studies, Muybridge also undertook a series of human movement studies and in a stark contrast to the times, it was only the turn-of-the-century after all, did much of these human studies with his subjects naked.

Not only is this story about Muybridge and his photographs, but it is also a narrative about the life and death of his wife Flora, the killing of his wife’s lover and his mind’s haunting of a young boy from his past. Couple this with Muybridge’s wild behaviour, believed to have been caused by a stagecoach accident shortly after arriving in California, and playwright Kevin Kerr not only gives us the spectacle of Muybridge’s photographs but his life story as well.

The problem here is that by spending so much time in the first act on Muybridge’s photographic breakthrough and studies, playwright Kerr doesn’t give us any really compelling reason to care about Muybridge’s life and the life of those around him. While we’re given small clues, there is definitely not a lot of context to create any real mystery here nor draw us into the character’s lives. (To be honest, much like reading the final chapter of a book, it wasn’t until we read the programme during intermission that we figured out some of that mystery). Fortunately though act two with its stronger narrative brings the play into real focus.

But narrative aside, the real stars of Studies in Motion are director Kim Collier, scenographer Robert Gardiner and choreographer Crystal Pite. Indeed the opening sequence is one of the most engaging and breathtaking scenes I have witnessed in many years and scene-after-scene the trio, with their talented actors, create compelling tableaus and reproductions of Muybridge’s photographs through lighting, a multitude of scrims and an exacting placement of the actors.

Much like a finally tuned synchronized swimming team, the entire ensemble is breathtaking to watch in some of the more complex choreographed scenes. As well, with most of the ensemble doing much of this in the nude, as Muybridge did in his real-studies, provides some good balance between the era’s distaste for nudity and up-tightness and Muybridge’s desire to capture the human body without sexualisation.

While Studies in Motion suffers from not effectively building the mystery of Muybridge’s real-life it is definitely a visual masterpiece the likes of which I have never seen before and for that reason alone it deserves to be seen.

Much like this year’s Arts Club co-presentation of a Skydive from the 2007 PuSh Festival and here we have another of Vancouver’s larger theatre companies taking on a co-production for something that came out of PuSh. All we can say is that we hope this is a trend that will continue.

Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge continues at the Vancouver Playhouse through April 18th, 2009. Visit http://www.vancouverplayhouse.com for information and tickets.

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