Shaping Upby Erica Getto
BAM | DECEMBER 13-16, 2017
“Please put on your 3D glasses,” reads the directive on screen. The audience laughs. The request, though well-intentioned, is unnecessary. Eager patrons have already anticipated and heeded it. This moment at the top of Tesseract, the latest project between dancers and choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, is small, but it feels pointed. Practically, the note acknowledges the unusual nature of the following performance: it is, in part, a 3D dance film. It also serves as an invitation into Mitchell and Riener’s world—experimental, absurd, and galactic. They might as well have told their audience to prepare for blast-off.
For Tesseract, Riener and Mitchell, both former Merce Cunningham Company members, teamed up with fellow alumnus Charles Atlas for the production. The performance, which premiered at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this December, is split into two acts: the first, Tesseract ⃞, is a 3D video presentation that splices together varied landscapes, color palettes, and choreography; the second, Tesseract ◯, is a stage performance with a live video component. Mitchell, Riener, and their fellow performers navigate what seems to be a nebulous and expansive galaxy before they bring the performance back to earth. The resulting piece is sharp, seductive, and stunning.
Tesseract ⃞ opens on Melissa Toogood and five pairs of hands caressing her. Even in this first beat, the performance takes advantage of its medium. With the shift of a camera, a solo becomes a group shot. The hands belong to Mitchell, Riener, Cori Kresge, Kristen Foote, and David Rafael Botana. This first piece is crisp; the set and costumes are white with black accents; the dancers sport glossy, rectangular raccoon eye makeup that masks their emotions; and they flit across the frame in a measured, controlled manner. Still, the filmed aspect of the piece is remarkable—whenever a dancer so much as glances at the camera, the eye contact is piercing and personal.
For all that the video lays bare, it also shrouds itself in fog and shadows, as in a galactic duet between Toogood and a pink-haired, space-suited Hiroki Ichinose. In 2015, Ichinose wore a similar silver bodysuit for Mitchell’s Light Years, where he performed alongside Toogood, Kresge, and Riener. What differentiates his New York Live Arts spaceman from this one, though, is scale: on screen and in 3D, Ichinose’s every muscle contraction is visible. When he careens towards Toogood, his leaps are at once weightless and staggering. And though the pair never touches, they create the illusion of a force field between them: when Ichinose’s hand moves, so do Toogood’s hips. She stares in to a void, unflinching, during this magnetic moment. Then, feet buried in a calf-deep cloud, she sinks and disappears.
While the first group scene could be derived from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Space Station V, the piece’s second sustained group scene seems to riff on the Stanley Kubrick film’s opening dawn of man sequence. The six core dancers all laze next to creamsicle-colored, geometric sculptures in front of a green-screen desert-scape. They wear leotards of the same color with more shapes poking out of them like pustules. This scene appears lighthearted—it ends with the performers shaking like they are at a nightclub and Kresge whispering to an orange cactus—but it feels essential to the scope of the piece. For one, it solidifies geometry as the work’s connective tissue. It also implies that this branch of mathematics has a darker side: the geometric sculptures are built out of tubes, and when the dancers crawl inside of them, they look like prisoners behind bars.
Part of the magic of Tesseract ⃞ is that it pairs longer, lush takes with both comic and deliciously sadistic bursts. Riener and Mitchell treat audiences to a brief two-shot of the pair quibbling in gibberish. And in flashes between the core scenes, the dancers don aqua-bobbed wigs and scuttle like spiders. In one camera trick, they creep not across the floor but the ceiling. At another point, five of them form a pentagram shape and thrash in slow-motion. In a third invocation of technology, the wig-wearing dancers move in black-and-white one instant and along a heat spectrum the next.
With such a daring and dense opening act, Tesseract runs the risk of audience fatigue as it enters its second stretch. The live portion of the performance, though, adds a new dimension to the interplay among technology, movement, and the interstellar. The performance takes place almost entirely behind a scrim that Atlas uses to project live video of the performance. Steadicam operator Ryan Thomas Jenkins, wearing pink silk and glittery silver sneakers, periodically joins the dancers on stage, drawing another point of contrast between the recorded and live performance. In the latter, there’s no place to hide the camera. That’s alright, though. It’s fascinating to see Jenkins chase after the dancers and, as the performance progresses, become one himself.
If the video portion of Tesseract is set in some sort of cosmic realm, then its live counterpart seems to take place in a more earthly setting, albeit a psychedelic one. The dancers move in a more agitated manner. There are apparent power struggles among them, and out of their interactions a sort of cultish follower-leader dynamic emerges. At the top of the live performance, the dancers, wearing translucent, structured jumpers—hybrids between spacesuits and cult robes—charge onto the stage like bulls. They run, dip, huddle up in a circle, then disperse. Together, they create a kaleidoscopic effect, much like a scene from the video performance but with their bodies as their only tools.
On the scrim, a series of white lines briefly form a two-dimensional trapezoid that encloses the dancers. Again, geometry features as an overt aspect of Tesseract; and again, shapes are presented as constricting. The dancers further press this idea when four of them lay down on the stage and form a square inside of which a fifth performer stands. As the standing dancer walks from stage left to right, the other four roll with her. She can move, but she cannot escape this display of human Lincoln Logs. When she does jump out of the square, the dancers shake; only when she returns to its nexus do they relax.
Perhaps, then, Tesseract is not as concerned with forming shapes as it is with deconstructing them—and with sorting out what happens when we break free from their confines. Though the performance is not didactic or conclusive, it does seem to suggest that out of this chaos, a synthetic power structure will emerge. In an exemplary set piece, Riener surrounds himself with four dancers like a preacher or prophet. He arches backwards until his head reaches the ground and lays prostrate, like a snow angel, with the dancers standing over him. When Riener stands up, the others roll on the floor. When he shuffles on his tiptoes, these apparent disciples follow. The camera only amplifies this apparent hierarchy. On the scrim, Atlas tinkers with the image on stage—in the projected version of the dancer, it looks like there are more people surrounding Riener than the four visible on stage.
As much as Tesseract uses technology to make its dancers look godlike, it does not let its audience forget that the technology (and the operators behind it) also have power. When the projection disappears momentarily, then returns, it features an aerial image of Riener alone. From this angle, Riener looks like he is effortlessly floating across a landscape, his feet following one another like magnets. If one looks at the stage, though, Riener is actually moving in place, jumping in and out of lunges. He needs the camera to convey the full effect of his influence.
This is not to say that there is a puppet-master aspect to Tesseract; the camera needs the performers for living, breathing source material. In one of Tesseract’s more intimate sections, Jewett wanders among the other dancers, and when they depart the stage she falls to the ground. Alone, her mesh jumper swapped out for a white bodysuit, she performs a series of sharp but refined poses. As she arches up on her back, then her side, Atlas projects layered, monochromatic images of her on the scrim. Suddenly, a quiet moment becomes an earth-shaking one, and movements may seem pained or protective appear, when projected, bold and even defiant. Jewett provides the raw material here, and Atlas blows her up to rock star proportions. In other words: Jewett makes shapes and angles with her body, and Atlas reinterprets and resizes them for the audience.
As the performance winds down, the dancers and Jenkins form fewer recognizable shapes and more winding, wavelike constructions, both alone and as a group. Their movements also become more electric. Amidst this energy shift, Botana sets himself apart from the dancers and Jenkins and performs a bold solo. On the scrim, bursts of light radiate from his body. Soon after, Mitchell jumps around the stage with an air of elation, and Jenkins—trailed in a conga line by the rest of the dancers—captures this choreographed chaos. Has the performance been liberated from geometry? Perhaps. But Tesseract is not a study of shapes so much as an examination of how humans and technology create, deconstruct, and manipulate them.
Furthermore, Tesseract distinguishes itself from other works that feature live dancers and technology in that it does not pitch itself as a work about the presence of technology in contemporary life. This increasingly tired trope makes for clunky, didactic performances. Here, technology is seamlessly integrated into the performance, taken as a fact and fixture, not an intrusion. The dynamic projections, camera tricks, sets, and music are pivotal to the performance, even though without the presence of dancers the whole enterprise would collapse.
Atlas, Mitchell, and Reiner have set out into unfamiliar lands to test the boundaries of how bodies and machines can create art that is multidimensional but not cluttered, eccentric but not unjustified. As the dancers take their leave in Tesseract, Jenkins crowd-surfing on their shoulders, one final projection from Atlas emerges on the scrim: an aerial shot of bodies transform into twinkling stars. It is heavenly because it is earthly.
ERICA GETTO is a New York-based writer whose interests include dance, comedy, and television. She holds a BA from Columbia University, where she studied the intersection of pop culture and politics.