Review: Alexander Whitley - The Measures Taken - Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 15 May 2014
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Friday 16 May 2014

Alexander Whitley 'The Measures Taken' 
Photo: Ambra Vernuccio

What stands out in watching Alexander Whitley’s dancers in The Measures Taken is that their choreographic aesthetic is so different to that used by the handful of choreographers who work with interactive digital media. Such choreographers ( like Wayne McGregor or William Forsythe ) tend to use cool fractured, showy hyper-extended or harsh experimental movement which often enforces the dehumanizing effect that results from the technology.

However Whitley’s dancers are ordinary mortals, dressed in every-day clothes, and the choreography which they perform, while less dramatically angular and mechanically extraordinary than of those mentioned above, is softer and warmer. The visual design by Marshmallow Laser Feast provides an ideal experimental playground for these gifted dancers to cut their teeth in the digital dance arena.

The first part of The Measures Taken is dominated by linear laser beams which carve out the stage, nothing so unusual but the dancers cluster together as if desperately trying to hold on to one another as they are investigated by the beams passing over their bodies. Whitley is interested in how this particular technology frames the body, how it exposes it or cuts across it. The performers glide fluidly in and out of the grids which the lighting creates, alone or in groups, but there is little actual interaction between them and the media. Both presences, the bodily and the visual are strong but separate.

It is the second section which really explores the interactive potential with motion tracking devices. The dancers move behind a screen onto which an avatar (image) morphs into various forms and shapes, triggered by their bodily impulses. Faster, expansive actions create images which become larger and manic, incredible geometric designs which assemble, dissolve then reassemble on the screen. There’s a point when the graphics which look like linear spikes intensify and multiply aggressively and overwhelm the dancers. It’s a scary moment, like a nightmare, when the visuals which look like weapons take control of the stage and we lose sight of the dancers. However finally a more satisfying, human and equal interaction is initiated by slower, explorative actions from the performers, which restores their grounded presence and which exposes the creative possibilities of the tracking systems. Images become rounder and fuller, responding sympathetically to the dancers, on a human and emotional level.

While The Measures Taken has its hits and misses, Whitley shows us some illuminating processes that he has effectively explored with his dancers.
Whitley’s urge to innovate is hinted at also in the short piece All That Is Sold Melts Into Air. He contrives to deconstruct traditional symbols of the ballet such as the ballerina complete with tutu and crown, the red curtain, the etiquette of partnering and gendered conventions. These symbols are plucked out of their traditional context and placed in a less linear and hierarchical manner. Music by Daniel Bjarnason and played by cellist Peter Gregson suggests the scratchy, antimelodic tones of modernist music which exists independently to the dancers. Marcelino Sambe presents Melissa Hamilton to the more contemporary figure of Eric Underwood who is free of balletic regalia and it is the final duet by Hamilton and Underwood that seems to break the traditional mould as they perform lifts that embrace gravity (ending on the floor). Their partnering is unconventional, decidedly erotic, and while not challenging to stereotypical roles of women and men in the ballet, a step in another, curious direction.

Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider.

Photos: Ambra Vernuccio

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