Guest author Matthew Paluch sees Alexander Whitley’s Anti-Body
“…life in a disembodied form…” Where are we? James Bond baddie rhetoric? The new Christopher Nolan blockbuster tagline?
No, we’re in the Lilian Baylis Studio for Alexander Whitley Dance Company‘s newest work Anti-Body, which sees “the dancers become at once set, lighting and characters in a narrative where the boundaries between self and other, human presence and digital pattern, become increasingly hard to define”.
It’s an original take, especially currently with the backlash against the digital age with people craving nature, simplicity, and life before Apple. Silicon Valley and the system will no doubt always prevail but there are definite pockets of dissent, often found in liberal, alternative environments. That said, I’m typing this on my Huawei phone – yes Android! – with many pointless apps so who am I to pontificate, but I like to think, and so does Whitley. His is the kind of career carved out by an inquisitive, intelligent mind. He’s a fellow Northerner, so I say that with some pride, and also a fellow White Lodger! Ballet pride overload.
The last AWDC piece I saw was a while back with Whitely himself featured, and that’s what stayed with me: such beautiful movement. The company has steadily grown and developed since its 2014 inception, and here we are in 2022.
Anti-Body sees Whitley working with composer Hannah Peel and music producer Kincaid, and digital artists Uncharted Limbo Collective – lots of humans to create something discussing the possibilities of life beyond the human experience.
So, I’m going to see a show looking at how to “transcend the material constraints of the human body and the promise of freedom this dream is built upon” whilst using the most bodily form of expression in order to try and realise it – paradoxical.
Seeing the performance, my experience of the work was ‘no, yes, no, yes’, but I’ll give you a bit more.
First and foremost, the equipment! I’m talking sensors, translation software, lights and screens – it must have cost a small fortune. But worth it as the result is of high-end, impressive quality. If you’re happy defining the piece as a digital spectacle using dance and dancers as its medium then you’ll be sorted; if you came to a dance house to see a dance company do a dance show you might be a little less satisfied.
The cast of three dancers – Joshua Attwood, Hannah Ekholm and Chia-Yu Hsu – are great in their Lara Croft-themed garb, designed by Juliette Ho. They perform the hide-in-the-dark, sedated version of dance at the highest level. There are peaks, but generally the energy and movement are on one level.
The movement features major kinesphere exploration and lots of impactful, dynamic drops and swoops, primarily on the spot. I imagine that these choreographic choices have been made to get the most out of the sensors, which translate the movement onto six gauze screens. The dancers spend their time sandwiched between two walls of three, which curtails their movement options even further. Attwood has two solos during the work – my two ‘yes’ moments! – that included more travel, which was satisfying, but I don’t think I saw one jump in the whole 60-minute experience. Elevation and travelling through space are two important components of dance that I personally missed.
The screen work is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The ‘no’ is the “bits and bytes” style digital visuals, which feel part motherboard immersion and screen saver observation; the ‘yes’ is the more literal moments. When one can recognise and connect with the human form captured through the motion sensors it really is interesting seeing all the different ways it can be realised. My observations aren’t definitive or literal, but at times I (think I) saw Morph, the Kraken, Transformers, and the type of alien communication seen in the film Arrival – smoke or ink-like in nature.
Halfway through the piece I started to settle in, engaging more and trying less hard to see the actual dancers inside the gauze sandwich, and felt more connected to the pace of the movement, visuals, and the percussive, relentless house music style soundtrack.
Attwood’s second solo had further ingenious digital work that saw him and the programming create a pas de deux between two representations of himself. It felt simultaneously human and disembodied, which presumably is exactly what Whitley was going for. The solo climaxed in a swirling dervish-style motion which took me right back to Istanbul. Wonderfully evocative.
The piece was a trip. It made me think all the way through, and part of that analysis was self-reflective: “You’re engaging now. Why and with what?”
Clever theatre makes you think as you observe. Whitley is very skilful at creating the appropriate environment to do so and then taking his audience along with him – thinking as they go.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers’ Teaching Diploma in 2007, and is currently on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.