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When it comes to editing an online film magazine in a city as rich and full with film as Toronto, a lot of stuff comes across your desk. But when I received an email about a multimedia arts collective from Guelph called Polydactyl Hearts who had created a music/graphic art projection/live performance piece about a city called Le Cyc that was powered by bicycles, I really couldn’t resist.

Getting the package, I was immediately taken by it. Bold contrasted pieces of stylized artwork stared back at me from the hand silk-screened DVD cover. Characters that begged for me to find out more spanned the majority of the cover, and a propaganda-style manifesto blanketed what space was left. An hour after sliding it into my DVD player, I was hooked. Normally performed with the artwork projected in tandem with the music performed live, the DVD brings both together.   “[Le Cyc] plays out live as if it were a graphic novel with no words,” says writer Eihab Boraie. “So [the viewer] is not going to be able to tell what’s actually happening just by watching the visuals alone or by listening to the music alone, and that’s kind of how it was created right from the start.”

Le Cyc is a “graphic novel bike opera” about a dystopian city of the same name that is powered by the bike pedaling of its residents. The city is run by a man named Mis de Berm, who has ruled for many years after being the consistent winner of their democratic bike race, which takes place every two years. Le Cyc is founded upon the philosophy “who pedals fastest shall rule the greatest.” Berm is responsible for bringing electric power to the city, which in turn provided schools and television — something that Le Cyc can not survive without, especially since it is the primary method by which Berm tells the city of his many accomplishments. Unfortunately, as with all unchecked power, there is also corruption. It seems that Berm is not the benevolent ruler that his propaganda posters say he is, and residents Jean-Paul and Sophie set out to make it right, albeit in different directions.

The idea itself came from artist Dave Willekes’ band called Special Purpose, who biked across Canada performing live with a series of Dance Dance Revolution mats and joysticks as instruments. “The thought of them biking across Canada… all that pedaling could probably power a city, and that’s kind of where it started. I started developing a bit of a story,” says Boraie. When Willekes returned, he was just as excited about the project. “How often are you going to have an amazing artist like that tell you that they’re willing to do whatever you want to do, so I had to take that opportunity,” notes Boraie.

To start with it was just Boraie and Willekes; Boraie on the piano and Willekes painting in tandem. Additional members of the group came on board one by one, each musician adding to and changing the ever evolving piece. “The thing with Le Cyc is that there wasn’t ever a time when it was fully written and then we executed it.   What was interesting about it is, sure, we can play it almost in any order and you can get the full story from it, but to keep the audience captivated, what is the best order, musically or visually?”

As the project evolved and new members were added to the collective, Willekes continued to create brilliant art work to accompany the music. Working with India ink, he coloured his bold line pieces with coffee. This interesting “paint” was discovered simply because it was in large supply and Willekes “liked the tone.” Needing another medium to add dimension to his renderings, he discovered that wine was the best “complement” to the already unique tone of coffee.

The end result is nothing short of breathtaking. A wonderful combination of visuals and music, this unique performance piece takes a look at class systems, work, and politics, challenging us to continue to question the world around us. “The longer you stay complacent with the way things are the harder it becomes to have any meaningful change,” says Boraie. “Regardless of how good you may think you have it, you should still always be questioning to make sure things aren’t souring or turning awry, ” adds Willekes. The text is very dense, with many characters dealing with truly operatic circumstances. The music itself it a mixture of rock, folk and classical, but really, trying to put it into any one of those categories diminishes its achievement in creating something completely new.

Le Cyc is performed with a piano/synthesizer, saxophone, clarinet, violin, bass, vibraphone and percussion to accompany the visuals and the vocals. While intended to be performed live, the DVD captures Le Cyc ‘s spirit and energy, making it an equally worthwhile experience. The full-feature DVD is available September 30, 2010 at Rotate This in Toronto or from their website polydactylhearts.ca for a mere $15. Not just satisfied with the DVD? The good news is that you can experience Le Cyc , along with Polydactyl Hearts newest piece, Hello Adventure , on Thursday, September 30 at the Music Gallery. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door.

Polydactyl Hearts became a multimedia collective through the creation of Le Cyc , but now that they have the bug, they’re not going to stop working together or making wonderful new art. “Ideally it’s what I’d love to be doing with my life is creating these worlds and creating these stories and watching them unfold musically as well as visually. I feel very fortunate to be in that position right now,” says Boraie. Premiering Hello Adventure at this year’s Images Festival and working closely with Wavelength, Polydactyl Hearts and their multimedia work is certainly something to watch for art, music and film fans hungering for something new.