It is safe to say that Hiroaki Umeda is a one-man operation, and on the occasion of his double-bill engagement at the New York Live Arts last week, he puts his physical and digital prowess on display full steam, or I should say, “full terabytes”, ahead. This Tokyo-based artist is not only the choreographer and the sole performer of this evening’s works, he is also responsible for designing – on his laptop, to boot – the visual and aural environment that envelops him. The stage looks decidedly empty upon entering the Live Arts’ mainstage theatre, but what the unsuspecting spectators don’t know is that they are soon to be inundated, and possibly overwhelmed, by veritable digital fireworks. (Spoiler alert!)

Hiroaki Umeda at New York Live Arts © Cherylynn Tsushima
Hiroaki Umeda at New York Live Arts
© Cherylynn Tsushima

When Umeda appears on stage in Haptic, the evening’s first work, he is but a shadow – a lone figure on a digital horizon, delineated by extremely precise lines and pools (rectangles, to be more precise) of highly contrasted hues. The opening image of Haptic sets the tone for the evening, as we are soon to understand that the human figure in this work is always fighting an uphill battle in a mathematically exacting universe, the one in which one’s humanness can never be taken for granted. Throughout the duration of Haptic, Umeda very slowly builds the minutiae of movement, starting with highly repetitive isolations concerning only parts of his body, and is so precise in his pursuit that, combined with the minimalistic sound rife with static bursts, he frequently gives me the impression of watching a glitchy video, where images often get stuck on a loop. As the piece progresses, the lighting shifts of deep hues of aquamarine, chartreuse, and (sparingly) red increase in frequency, and Umeda eventually puts his entire body to work – now he looks like a drone scanning the audience, and his body molds and shifts shapes to form a high-tech breakdancing of sorts. As Haptic feverishly draws to a close, he is drowned in a digital sea, a fleck of black, a disturbance on some vast, trembling screen.

While the stage imagery of this first work is mainly drawn by lighting – and, in case I haven’t made that abundantly clear, impressively so – video is the real star of Holistic Strata, tonight’s second (and final) piece. Lit entirely by a bank of digital projectors, the work begins quietly, with a stunning image of Umeda, whose body appears like a mirror of the night sky full of stars. The “stars” I speak of are, naturally, pixels, and the visual quickly reverses, the entire stage now being covered with slowly moving dots while Umeda’s silhouette remains perfectly dark – apparently floating in this electronic sky. The work’s start, thankfully, and surprisingly, really does not prepare me for what is to come – the experience that ensues from this point on is really akin to a head trip. To the extent that line between the human and the digital is blurred in Umeda’s work, I wonder if this is what computers see when they dream, or hallucinate. While the structure of the first work may be described as mathematical, that of Holistic Strata is truly fractal, if anything else. And yet, the effect of the video that I find most meaningful is that for all its computational quality, the shifting environments that cover the entire stage floor and rear wall conjure in my mind images of nature: waterfalls, snow storms, seaweed floating on the ocean floor – with only an occasional dive into the world of science fiction, traveling at warp speed, and – yes, forgive me – Tron. Another quality that sets the second work apart from its predecessor is that Umeda’s movement here is reduced to a bare minimum: he really acts as the only visual and physical anchor to a constantly moving matrix of projected images that engulf the stage space.

What I ultimately find rewarding about this work is that, in spite of its exacting, highly technical nature, it seems to be very much concerned with the endless struggle to overcome limitations of a form – be it human, artistic, or digital. It is impressive that Umeda’s bravura as a performer manages to break through the sonic wall of digital accoutrements he works with; and, conversely, the electronic imagery he employs pulls off a nearly cinematic effect.