Death by Overwork – A Musical

“So, is this like, a musical ballet?” read the text message from my plus one before the show.

“Well,” I answered, “I think it’s a musical in that there is music. A Japanese drum, I think. And I think it’s more like… contemporary dance.”

Although I extensively googled director/choreographer Shay Kuebler’s new full length version of Karoshi, my pre-show knowledge was limited to the following: The title and theme ‘Karoshi’ is a Japanese term for “Death by Overwork”. The all-male dance ensemble of five is accompanied by live drumming by Uzume Taiko’s Jason Overy. Kuebler describes the style of dance as hip hop and contemporary with martial arts influences.

These three informative snippets were enough for me to know I need to obtain tickets!!

I had no idea however, that Karoshi was about to blow my mind.

We file in to the Scotiabank Dance Centre. Tonight is a sold out performance, the lobby is packed with a diverse crowd. General admission in the 154 seat Faris Family Studio has everyone anxiously eyeing the doors as they sip libations. Sake is on the theatre bar menu in addition to the usual beer and wine- a nice thematic addition. The doors are opened and we press in. The crowd is excited.

Karoshi opens with Kuebler typing at a computer work station. Strange noises are heard as the office empties out for the day, an aggravating sticky key on the keyboard, mounting frustration. Then things start to get a little weird…in a good way. Man and machine become embroiled in an increasingly aggressive battle which climaxes in an old school Street Fighter style throw down… danced by Kuebler… alone. His style is indeed mesmerizing and explosive. He has lived up to his reputation. (As discovered on Google!)

Incredibly well paced, the show mixes together a diverse montage of scenes exploring the theme; sometimes sombre and thick with despair, sometimes humorous and absurd.

Dancers Scott Augustine, Hayden Fong, Nicholas Lydiate, Manuel Sorge and Shay Kuebler perform together in tight choreography. Their movements are powerfully expressive; uniformity and ambition broken by frenetic desperation.  Showcased individually in scenes they are hauntingly expressive and beautiful. I particularly loved Sorge’s strobe light falling suicide scene.

Other highlight scenes include my plus one’s favourite where visual artist Josh Hite’s projections of snow (or perhaps ash or ‘bubbles’) drive in a flurry across the stage as once dancer struggles furiously through the storm. The audience was particularly fond of a Karaoke scene. Watch for the dancers to be the ‘bouncing ball’ as words are cleverly projected on the stage floor. A relatively brief collection of performances that I still feel merit mention are depictions of elevator and public transit.

This is a very promising and ambitious first fully conceived and orchestrated piece by the talented Shay Kuebler. Because it so fully embodied entertainment and artistry at such high levels I would enthusiastically encourage absolutely anyone to see Karoshi the next time it plays in town.

Karoshi was presented by the Dance Centre as part of the Global Dance Collection Series.