3D viewing of movies is nowadays commonplace, just as a “cutting edge” idea of “the body” is commonplace in postmodern dance culture. But what happens when postmodern dance embraces 3D technology? The Company Wayne McGregor, from England, tries to answer this question with its production of Atomos (2013).

Wayne McGregor (b. 1970) is the founder of the company and the choreographer of Atomos, and he has acquired considerable international acclaim for dances that involve the use of video and digital media. He has also worked with many of the world’s major ballet companies, and he has worked on music videos and films, including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The company consists of ten dancers from different parts of the world, five men and five women. They are all very beautiful, highly athletic, and intensely disciplined.

According to program notes by anthropologist James Leach, Atomos, which slightly longer than hour, purports to be an “exploration of the intelligence of the body”—that is, “what the intelligences and understandings that bodies have of others’ presence; what elements they have, what atoms might be combined and recombined to make a dance.” This rhetoric, however, emerges on behalf of a dance that “explores” its theme in an almost purely abstract manner. Like most postmodern dances, Atomos is anti-theatrical, anti-dramatic, and anti-hierarchical in its “exploration” of the relation between atoms and bodies. The piece has no scenery to speak of, other than a dimly projected geometric design on a large screen behind the dancers. The lighting, by Lucy Carter, is effective in creating visual dynamism, shifting from a dusky glow that metamorphosis into bold, monochromatic colors: emerald, purple, orange, turquoise, carmine, and so forth.

About halfway through the piece, the audience puts on 3D glasses to view scenes involving seven small video panels suspended above the stage. Abstract digital designs appear at first, then videos of individual company members dancing as seen by different camera positions. These images do not interact with each other, but soon the company dancers appear on stage while the videos continue. The 3D effect is not very exciting and does not create any powerful sense of depth between live dancers and video imagery. Part of the problem is that the video screens, although they move up and down, are too small to produce the feeling that the spectator is engulfed by the space of performance. The relation to atoms is obscure. At one point all seven screens show the same unreadable scrolling of what looks like computer code from The Matrix, but the connection between atoms and electrons, digital code, bits and bytes, or pixels, not to mention space or bodies, is merely implied, not developed.

The music is a piece called A Winged Victory for the Sullen, the work Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran. It consists of sustained electronic tones and drones mostly, with occasional sparkle clusters. It is not music that possesses much, if any, pulse or any contrapuntal complexity. Like so much music for postmodern dance, it functions primarily as a “background” for the dancers and not something to which they develop any relationship. I never got the feeling that the dancers moved as a result of listening to the music and responding to it; rather, the music exists to create a monolithic “mood” that allows the dancers to concentrate on themselves and not on any pulse or power outside of themselves.

But the weakest part of the show is the choreography. McGregor repeats again and again the same movement tropes—he likes darting, looping, slithering movements of the arms, hands, and torsos, and swivels of legs over partners’ bodies. His idea of the combining and recombining of atoms is the monotonous repetition of the same movements, executed with the same darting rapidity by all the dancers, in different configurations (solo, duet, group), presumably to show that, like atoms, all the bodies are “equal.” In a spirit of non-hierarchical collaboration, he apparently wants to give all ten dancers in the company an equal amount of time on the stage. Bodies are like atoms in that they move restlessly within a confined space and time without becoming anything other than bodies. There is no effort to attach bodies to anything resembling “characters” or even allegorical ideas.

There is no “story,” because there is no sense of conflict, no suggestion that atoms divide matter (bodies) as much as they unite it. What appears instead is a “community” of bodies that “collaborates” naturally, so to speak, because of its obvious agility in combining and recombining the same movement tropes. These movement tropes remain utterly detached from any notion of representation—they are completely abstract and exist to show that the dancers can perform them with great skill. The costumes function to show off the bodies of the dancers and are very minimalist: women in semi-bikinis and the men in skintight T-shirts and trunks. The bodies are certainly beautiful, but the fluttery yet banal movements might actually be more interesting if performed by a more diverse range of physiognomies.

Despite changes in the color of the lighting, the piece is emotionally monotonal and monochromatic–a kind of dusky quality that never achieves anything resembling even an elegiac, melancholy, or poignant mood. Such emotions are way too strong for the sensibilities responsible for this piece–much darker or more powerful emotions, such as joy, terror, ecstasy, fury, bitterness, voluptuousness, or exhilaration are completely beyond the capacity of McGregor to imagine choreographically. The piece builds to a sort of climax with the 3D imagery, but in this case it is a climax that results from expecting something dramatic or insightful to occur—you keep thinking something startling will happen, and then the 3D stuff just stops.

Yerba Buena Center was full, so I may be underestimating the extent to which this kind of dance appeals to audiences. Nevertheless, Atomos is a dance that seems entirely the product of a dance studio. It is utterly detached from the world outside of the dance studio–that is to say, it is detached from the signification of any emotion or idea that might be external to the “community” of dancers. If you didn’t have the program notes to guide you, you would never see in the dance any connection of bodies to atoms. But this is the kind of show that governments and corporate sponsors like to fund nowadays–it’s all about a “community,” about a “collaboration” that “connects” all of its members to each other and to technology without any struggle for power and without any revelation of what we might call “character” or differentiating motives for action and movement. In this respect, Atomos is a harmless piece.

The Company Wayne McGregor presented Atomos at Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco January 14, 15, and 16, under auspices of SF Performances. For info on SFP: (415) 392-2545, or go online.

The postmodern dance company will repeat Atomos at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis, January 20, at 8 PM.

© Karl Toepfer 2016
Karl Toepfer is a dance reviewer for
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region) as well.

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