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Dance for the new century

Jonathan Bollen on the ADT and Random engagement with robotics

Jonathan Bollen lectures in Drama at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Devolution Devolution
photo Chis Herzfeld
One hundred years ago, when Isadora Duncan was envisioning “the dance of the future”, she turned her body towards nature and moved with the rhythm of the wind and the waves. Duncan’s ecological choreography for the new century of liberation fuelled many an unburdened, barefoot dance, all free-flowing limbs and gravitational flow. Yet her cosmic view of nature’s rhythms was an enchanted 19th century romance. The futurists with their militant manifesto for arts violent and mechanic were gathering in the wings.

A century later, dance is a high-tech, futurist affair. Two works at the 2006 Adelaide Festival—Nemesis from Random Dance (UK, 2002) and the Australian Dance Theatre’s new work Devolution—choreographed dancers with machines and moving images on screens to digital audio scores.

The convergence of biological bodies and digital technologies is a frontier for innovation. Live performance has long served up its flesh from within a carapace of stage technology. In these new works, the techno-exoskeleton converges with the performers’ flesh on stage. Yet amidst the biotech convergence of 21st century dance, I sense how Wayne McGregor (Random Dance) and Garry Stewart (ADT) have both retained a fondness for the human body and a fascination with the natural world.

The envisioning of nature in these works trades Duncan’s cosmic vision for the minute and microscopic. The strange ways insects move—with their crisp and crunchy biomechanics, their swiftness, swarm and buzz—are traced across the choreography of both works. At times in Devolution, Stewart’s choreography recalls the movements, stranger still, of plants and protozoa.

The works are elegiac in their evocation of the human body. Gina Czarnecki’s meticulous video work for Devolution manipulates fragments of moving human flesh and flashes of X-ray skeletons. These video images, interspersed throughout the work, invoke prehuman memories of cellular splitting and ghostly after-images of bodily remains. They are haunting representations of emergence and dispersal from the past.

Nemesis

Digital video delivers humanising evocation in Nemesis as well. Ravi Deepres and Luke Unworth have designed a video montage that builds slowly, layer upon time-lapsed layer, with images of the dancers—frozen into poses of exhaustion, anguish and ennui—in the drawing room of an abandoned house. This recovered memory gives retrospective location to preceding segments of choreography accompanied by enigmatic images of other rooms from the house.

McGregor’s choreography for Nemesis is architectural and geometric. Dancers’ limbs extend along the cardinal directions outwards from the torso—back then forward, down then up, left then right. Their shoulders and their hips articulate the destinations of their limbs. Each move is plotted with the precision of a coordinate within a 3-dimensional grid.

Dancers enter, walk and wait. They dance solo and with each other in pairs and trios—lifting, leaning, carrying, placing. Their costumes are neat shorts, singlets and long-sleeved tops in grey and yellow construction colours. Their trajectories are adjacent, though their relations are indifferent. The floor is lit by Lucy Carter with architectural patterns; windows, circles, shafts of light and then a grid give structure to the dancers’ positions and progressions.

Scanner’s audio score for Nemesis builds from rattles, squeaks and breathy winds to ambient chirps and vocal echoes and rises to rhythmic intensities with metallic machine percussion and techno-synth progressions for a fiery ensemble sequence. The house burns, the dancers disperse. And then we are transported—or abducted.

A dancer crawls on stage and then another. Their body-suits are cockroach-black, their arms distorted. Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop designed spikey, flesh-stripped, arm prostheses which flex and flick like insect claws. Orange hexagons tessellate the floor as more dancers enter flicking claws. An insectoid sci-fi combat scene ensues. McGregor’s prosthetic interest in extension recalls ballet’s derivation in fencing.

McGregor dances a final solo scene between 2 see-through screens: a slug-like crawl, a parasite, a worm, while animated centipedes chase each other around the screens. Four years old, the screensaver-like animation shows its age and fades. An online animation records the Nemesis sci-fi game aesthetic (www.randomdance.org). Its robotic insects, honeycomb grids and fine-line text click through to audio loops and low-grade video of the dance.

Devolution

In comparison with Nemesis, Stewart’s choreography for Devolution is fractal and organic. It grows and oozes, unfurls and folds, flips and flows. The dancers are dressed armadillo-like in layered leather skins by Georg Meyer-Wiel and they move as if by feeling, without the aid of sight.

Their heads are often down, their faces turned away. Their arms curl out, a leg folds up. Sometimes they are rooted, fixed like tripods on the spot, supported on 2 knees and an elbow, 2 feet and a hand, 2 hands and a head. At other times, the dancers travel in a pack, with arms and legs entwined and overlapping. Three pairs dance a sequence mouth-to-mouth. A man is left to dance a solo, angular and naked, but not alone.

Waiting in the wings and suspended from the rig are Louis-Philip Demers’ robots which stumble, trundle, scatter in to survey the scene. Unlike the dancers, these mechanical monsters have searching eyes—spotlights that transfix the dancers in their gaze. They intrude upon them and impinge upon their space. The dancers cower and sink beneath the awesome rudeness of the robots’ presence.

The robots’ moves are cumbersome, and sometimes cute. When it’s quiet, we can hear them creak and breathe. But when composer Darrin Verhagen’s clunking, churning industrial score lends aural power to Demers’ machines, we are witness to the mechanical choreography of terror. We hear bones crushing and flesh tearing. The dancers shrink in fear.

A robot drags a dancer across the stage and drops him. Machines attach themselves to dancers, as parasitical appendages that pulse upon the dancers’ bodies with their piston push and shove. As the end approaches, the stage is electrified with action, robots agitated, lights flashing, bodies pulsing. And then a screen descends. The final video is of a clustering of human flesh, shrinking, fading, disappearing. In the curtain call for Devolution, as if to reassure us, only the human performers lined up for the applause.


Australian Dance Theatre, Devolution; Her Majesty’s Theatre. Adelaide, March 3-7; Random Dance, Nemesis; Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, March 15-18

Interviews RT 71, p 2 & 4 for interviews with Garry Stewart and Wayne Macgregor.

Jonathan Bollen lectures in Drama at Flinders University in Adelaide.

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 32

© Jonathan Bollen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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