by Byron Woods
Painter Robert Longo, motion picture special effects designer John Gaeta, UNC defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, martial arts choreographer 袁和平 (Yuán Hépíng) and cyberpunk novelist William Gibson got thrown out of a tec bar the other night...
In its past, even among its most refined practitioners, hip hop choreography has been a signifier set that frequently has pointed back to little more than itself. Stipulate that such is an inevitable stage in the evolution of any human behavior that emerges from pastime to trick to technique to style to substance as an art form: in this case, dance moves and gestures capable of disclosing or speaking to something other than themselves.
As a result, at times a sense of more than merely physical exhaustion has haunted even the bravura of Compagnie Käfig, Rubberbandance and Rennie Harris over the years.
Enter the 605 Collective, a hive of dancemakers from Vancouver. To be certain, AUDIBLE, their percussive evening-length American Dance Festival debut, was physically exhausting to enact (and even watch, to some degree).
Still, there was a clear sense that it had exhausted neither its subject nor the range of artistic possibilities by the end of its hour on stage. Even more importantly, in these choreographers’ ability to find, analyze and fuse a diverse range of cultural influences into a meta-commentary on technology, sport, surveillance and the hazards of increasingly mediated isolation and community, we read what seems more of an opening statement than remarks knotted into the end of someone's artistic rope.Where dancemakers once aspired to anthropomorphize such aspects of the natural world as the afternoon of a faun or a bevy of swans next to a body of water, these artists have devoted substantial time and technique to recreating digital video editing artifacts and glitches—electronic stutter/stagger steps, microloops and other gestural hangs—on the human form instead. It makes 605 Collective the second dance company in the same week (Shen Wei's Near the Terrace was the first) to present audiences with convincing real-time versions of digitized images, movements and effects first seen on video or in film.
And how does dancer and company co-founder Shay Kuebler achieve that apparently mediated blowback we see after his character encounters an invisible force while running widdershins, midstage, in mid-performance? Apropos of nothing, he's caught in a velocity recoil seemingly taken from a wuxia film sequence, one that suddenly hangs, as if in freeze frame, in midair. After a long moment, the image then advances another frame—where it hangs, and then hangs again after another frame advance or three. Then real-time reconvenes. Someone, alert the Wachowskis.
Then, there’s this: If you give anything enough voltage, it will dance. Once, the flow of energy through the human form benignly animated the pop and lock moves and isolations of early hip hop—as well as works like Shen Wei’s Connect Transfer. But in Audible, the current has been amped to a point where it seems to ricochet off the interior walls of the thorax, hips and abdomen and bolt through the joints and extremities, all but dislocating hips and shoulder blades, arms and vertebrae in the process. That’s when the throughput isn’t arcing across fingertips and other synaptic contact points among the members of the group.
Repeatedly, the group looks as if it is animating video edits of early Robert Longo paintings like Men Trapped In Ice.
But what human relationships are possible in a world where the wetware remains in perpetual upgrade? When does its inhabitants exceed the maximum chipset speed for compassion? And are the assessing looks this quintet repeatedly gives one another asking “Are you okay,” or merely “Can you keep up?”
There are comic sections in Audible, to be certain. As people fall, their gestures indicate they’re trying to save—or consult—their iPhones on the way down, in singular and mutual blinding societies. In one left-handed tribute to social media, a group of stalkers bite—and then mock—the moves of Scott Augustine’s character behind his back. After he becomes aware, and then insulted by the attention, he then worries when the crowd loses interest.
At times individuals attempt to evade the gaze, the contact and the velocity of the group. Repeatedly, characters crouch with their hands over their ears, or move as if to ward off a direct blow or an influence—a shoulder check, for example, which is delivered with a gaze or by a gesture, even when bodies don’t touch. At other times the poses here suggest characters who just can't take more input.
In this culture, good luck with that. Repeatedly, individuals on stage attempt to get some distance on the crowd, in solos and forceful shove-offs or sprints.
The only problem with that? Here, your Facebook friends really don’t want you to leave. And the benefits of living in a digital fishbowl, like a helpful hand up when you fall, or an immediate response to a social invitation, have a habit of turning in this world on stage, as the boundaries and responsibilities between individuals and groups are constantly, and forcefully, renegotiated.
When a culture throws that much at you, a defensive posture may be indicated. Audible makes that state literal when dancers don wrestling headgear, before emulating scrimmage drill patterns for a football team’s front four.A different exhaustion—if not desperation—haunts these ceaseless perambulations, in a world in which devices (and group dynamics) ultimately operate the user, not vice versa.
We saw an expression of that extremity in Doug Varone’s version of Ballet Mécanique in 2002. (The clip at right plays the last 40 seconds of the work.) In that dystopian vision of George Anthiel’s famous score, humans are manipulated by—and become—the cogs in an overindustrialized and sped-up society.
At the time, I described Varone’s work as a compelling and cautionary document of a civilization in acceleration and decline—a dance analogue, in short, to Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi.
But in Audible, human forms are no longer being crudely manipulated by the oversized gears and levers that once populated the nightmares of Fritz Lang.
Now, their dreams, desires and energies are fed through microprocessors instead. That technology works so exponentially faster. And its control is much more fine.
How unfortunate it is that our bodies and psyches can't begin to keep up with them. In Audible we see how both fly apart when they try.
Welcome to the future. Not only do I predict 605 Collective is going to be there, it appears they’ve already arrived.