Shay Kuebler tackles the body building industry in Feasting on Famine

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Feasting on Famine | Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art | Firehall Arts Centre | September 27 – 30, 2017

In Feasting on Famine, Shay Kuebler explores the fine line between passion and obsession. This contemporary dance piece is like a marathon of body building vignettes showing the highs and lows of the business. Kuebler has bulked up a fair amount in preparation for this piece, which is a full-length version of his performance at the 2015 Dancing on the Edge Festival, and it both showcases his physical prowess and critiques the fitness industry.

Kuebler’s head is in the zone before we even take our seats. Headphones in and track suit on, he jogs back and forth, stretches, and pumps himself up in a pre-workout routine. Behind him, two large screens show a timer counting down to showtime. He brings an exercise bike on stage and secures it with sandbags — this piece of equipment figures prominently throughout the piece as he returns to it as both a site of refuge and conflict.

The subject matter is often serious, but there is plenty of comedy. In one scene, Kuebler dances with his exercise bike, showing the love/hate relationship he has with it. In another, he critiques the massive amounts of protein and calories consumed by body builders and their meticulous measurement of food by gorging himself on an entire roasted chicken and measuring out a thimbleful of water using an eyedropper.

In another striking scene, Kuebler, his back to the audience, moves like a muscular statue. His assistants cover him with shaving cream, and he gracefully shaves his entire body highlighting the obsession with appearance that often goes hand in hand with that level of elite fitness.      

The ambivalence of Kuebler showing off his body building poses in one scene and then sending up pharmaceutical ads and highlighting the dark side of the industry in another made sense as things are not always black and white. There is a positive side to being obsessed with fitness, but sometimes things can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. In the final scene, Kuebler rode his exercise bike while a voice over shared a series of clichéd motivational sayings about seizing the day and never giving up on your dreams. Meanwhile two assistants walk back and forth across the stage feeding him pills.   

There is a lot going on in this piece. From the pharmaceutical interests involved in body building, to competitions, to the relationship that these athletes have with food, to how all of that relates to capitalism — these are huge issues to tackle on their own, which is no wonder this show felt a bit too packed with content. The first few scenes seemed to hint at a grand narrative arc that might run through the show, but later on things seemed pieced together without linear structure. That would have worked if the threads were all tied up by the end, but the conclusion wasn’t as satisfying as some of the individual ideas expressed throughout.  


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