Review: Alexander Whitley - Pattern Recognition - Platform Theatre

Performance: 8 April 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 27 April 2016

Alexander Whitley & Natalie Allen in 'Pattern Recognition'. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Performance reviewed: 8 April 2016

Alexander Whitley’s latest work pursues a prevalent theme in modern choreography: the digitisation of dance. Many leading choreographers have experimented with the interaction of human and digital movement, a trend we can trace back to the late Merce Cunningham’s use of the DanceForms computer program to inform his choreography, which led to his collaborations with digital artists, creating performance events that were enlivened by multi-screen animations. Many of today’s choreographers, such as Wayne McGregor and Mark Baldwin, have taken these innovations forward in line with the developing technologies.

We can certainly add Whitley’s name high up the list of choreographers creating dance through interactive digital technology. Pattern Recognition is the next stage in an evolution of his digitally-enhanced dance, moving on from The Measures Taken; his collaboration with the digital arts studio, Marshmallow Laser Feast, from which organisation came Memo Akten, the artist with whom Whitley has created this latest foray into the marriage of dance and the digital world. In most cases – certainly with Cunningham’s work – the dance was born out of the computer. It was the software that tended to influence the choreographic direction. But, in this case, it is the human movement that dictates what inanimate objects do through the digital connection.

Its hard to avoid being ‘techie’ in an explanation of the process but, in essence, motion tracking devices (developed for the gaming industry) react to the movement of two dancers in front of them and these sensors make eight small (knee-height), black lights move around the stage, quickly – like four-wheeled suitcases or mini R2-D2s – projecting spotlight beams, like penetrating lasers, emanating from the middle of each ‘little robot’s’ imagined face. In essence, these lights travel in real time, in relation to the movement of the dancers. Nothing is pre-programmed and so every performance will be different insofar as the lighting is concerned.

And, here, the lighting is much more than illumination. For a piece that it is so highly focused on lighting devices, Pattern Recognition is surprisingly dark, much of the time. But, the R2-D2s move around so much that a human duet takes on the feel of an ensemble dance piece for ten. Even to the extent of the little critters dipping their beams to take a curtain call!

It’s an idea that, while innovative, may seem thinly spread for a performance of almost an hour but Whitley ameliorates any such concern through the clever multi-layering structure of his work. The pace of each sequence is well-judged and there is no opportunity for the lazy mind to wander. He arranges the space cleverly through the use of a mesh curtain and the dancers are given time away from the lights, just to be dancers. We first encounter them, with the house lights on, going through their warm-up routines. During the show, when the lights are resting, the dancers assume simple postures of stillness. Whitley lays down, resting on his lower back and elbows, one knee raised, as if he is the faune idling on a rock, at midday. A particular highlight is a charming, sentimental duet for Whitley and his partner, the Australian dancer, Natalie Allen.

These moments where the dancers shine on their own are intermissions that punctuate the main body of the work in which motion-responsive technology takes the lead. It isn’t the lights reacting to the two dancers that provide the most fascination, although it is an interesting challenge to work out cause and effect, and I dislike being blinded by light shining into the audience, an irritating phenomenon that made shading one’s eyes an occasional necessity; but more the interaction of the dancers with the lights.

The earlier allusion to a Star Wars robot to describe the eight mobile lights might seem frivolous for such an intellectual challenge (although many breakthroughs in digital technology – such as face recognition software – have emerged directly from concepts in the movies, including the Star Wars septet) but they do seem like the dancers’ companions, perhaps even their pets! The best sequences are where there is true interaction between human and machine, such as when Allen appears to caress a light beam.

There has always been an engineer’s slant to Whitley’s choreography – we saw a literal application of structural engineering in his previous work, Frames – as there is to the New Movement Collective, to which he belongs (their next project involves architectural laser scanning) – but here, it is not so much about structures, as it is about electronic engineering into the digital age. Exploring the interaction of human movement and the digital world is certainly nothing new but – in Pattern Recognition – Whitley is mining a largely untapped seam of ideas, establishing and exploring his concept of digitally built dance.

Alexander Whitley’s website


Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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