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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 May 2018

Nufonia Must Fall at NYUAD: a robot love story

Nufonia Must Fall is an incredible live show that mixes puppetry and music to bring to life Kid Koala’s graphic novel of the same name. As he brings it to Abu Dhabi, the DJ tells us the story behind the project

Kid Koala performs Nufonia Must Fall with The Afiara Quartet at the Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival in Groningen, the Netherlands in 2014. Courtesy Pierre Borasci
Kid Koala performs Nufonia Must Fall with The Afiara Quartet at the Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival in Groningen, the Netherlands in 2014. Courtesy Pierre Borasci

The question might not just be how, but why? Why would you even attempt to adapt a graphic novel about robots in love into a puppet-show/real-time movie, soundtracked by a live string quartet and turntables?

In Kid Koala’s case, the answer could perhaps be summed up as happenstance, circumstance and a smidgen of blind ambition.

The genesis of Nufonia Must Fall – the multidisciplinary performance, which will be staged at New York University Abu Dhabi tomorrow and Friday – came about 17 years ago.

In the aftermath of his 2000 debut album Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – a meticulous yet goofy sampler-free statement ripped straight from vinyl to tape, which took four years to create – Canadian turntable whizz Kid Koala, aka Eric San, was approached with a book contract.

“I’m not an author, I knew that. I was confused as to why they were asking me to write a book,” he says. The brief was a minimum of 100 pages, 10,000 words on any subject of his choosing.

“I figured they wanted me to write about DJing, seeing as that’s what I was known for,” says the 42-year-old. “So I started writing this book which was almost my ‘survival kit book for a touring DJ’. I realised I was boring myself writing about the mechanics of how to tune-up a rental turntable ... basically stuff that had nothing to do with anything.

“I got to the point again where I felt like, oh no, I need to pay this advance back, I’m not cut out to write a book. So I started doing what has been my default activity ever since I was a child, which was to start drawing – and a bunch of characters were born on several placemats in several diners around Montreal.”

Those characters included the headphone-sporting, music-loving robot T4, who falls in love with a human, Malorie, and is under threat of obsoletism from the newer T5 model. The wordNufonia in the title refers to the world they live in – a world of No Fun.

“Where did that come from?” says San with a laugh. ”That was my quarter-life crisis.”

The characters continued to take shape while Kid Koala was on tour with Radiohead in 2001 – “Some of the line work was a little wobbly because of speed bumps” – and eventually, two years after his initial deadline, San handed in Nufonia Must Fall. Instead of 100 pages, it was 352. Instead of 10,000 words, it was mostly wordless, a graphic novel. Against all expectation, ECW Press loved it.

“I knew they could easily have said, ‘This is not what we asked for, we want our advance back,’” says San. “They had zero idea it was coming.”

The only condition was that San create a soundtrack CD, to be packaged with the book – a home-recorded 15-minute disc that became an catalyst for the later live production of the story.

Fast-forward 10 years – including three more studio albums, another graphic novel, and soundtrack contributions to movies including Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Looper – and San’s reputation as an artistic auteur, and his notoriety for transforming the decks into a melodic instrument, spread.

In the space of just six weeks, he had meetings with Adrian Fung, of the chamber Afiara Quartet, puppeteer Felix Boisvert, and KK Barrett, a film production designer who won an Oscar for his work on Spike Jonze’s Her.

Each was keen to collaborate but rather than embarking on three separate projects, San and Barrett began talking and saw a way to bring these disparate disciplines together.

“It was all people-power, the circumstances of meeting these co-conspirators,” says San.

The end result is the Nufonia Must Fall live show, which had its premiere in 2014 – to understandable befuddlement.

It worked like this: the graphic novel’s characters were recast as 25 centimetre-high puppets, which are filmed live on 20 tiny sets by five cameras.

The images are projected onto a big screen behind them. The string quartet is also on stage, as is San – a trained classical pianist – who plays turntables and a barrage of other instruments to perform an accompanying live score.

For the audience, it offers both a beautified cinematic experience caught on camera – loaded with breathtaking micro-special effects – and a frenzied human trapeze act making it happen.

“This show is akin to watching 15 people on one surfboard,” says San, laughing.

For all the technical precision, if there is one thing Nufonia is not, it is taxing for the audience. Reviewers are quick to point at both the humanity found in the story of a robot falling in love, and the visual and musical humour – a Kid Koala trademark – that peppers the script.

“It sounds daunting, like a very laborious night out,” says San. “But afterwards we get grown-ups coming up and saying ‘I cried three times’.

“I will agree – and it’s completely our fault – it’s very difficult to describe, but we guarantee everything that we’re doing is in the name of trying to make a fun experience for the audience.”

• Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall is at Red Theater, NYU Abu Dhabi tomorrow at 8pm and Friday at 4pm. Register for free tickets at www.nyuad-artscenter.org

rgarratt@thenational.ae