Back to the Future

By Leigh Witchel

“Please put on your 3D glasses.” The request that started “Tesseract” let you in on what the show was going to be like: highly theatrical yet filtered at one remove. A collaboration among Charles Atlas, the filmmaker, and Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Reiner, the dancemaking duo, “Tesseract” proudly walked the runway representing the House of Cunningham, even when it bogged down in its own concepts.

The show was in two halves, beginning with a retro-futuristic film by Atlas. After an intermission, the performance switched to live action.

Like an audience in 1953 waiting to see “Cat-Women of the Moon,” our 3-D spectacle began as we sat wearing our glasses, to see a background of stars and a tesseract itself. Though many of us may have heard the term first used to describe the space travel technique in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” the word was coined to describe a four-dimensional shape. As a 3-D cube squares a 2-D square, a 4-D Tesseract cubes a 3-D cube.

Atlas’ film moved from computer animation to humans, but with the same once-upon-a-time-in-the-future feel. Melissa Toogood materialized on what seemed like a filmed version of the stage. She was outfitted in white with black patches, with black rectangles across her eyes and a blue streak on her lips. Touched and handled by others, her skin was pressed, and her hands moved for her as if she were sightless.

The dancing in the both the filmed part and the live section that followed hearkened back to Merce Cunningham – his independent, nodal style of using the body, but in tandem with simple, freer movement: bouncing, shaking or swinging arms.

“Tesseract.” Photo © Robert Altman.

The frame split to reveal another scenario: a gray disorienting limbo that rotated making the floor the ceiling. The dancers, wearing green pageboy wigs, crawled in the planetary spin. Another section followed; a space age duet in silver and gray lamé where the fog on the screen seemed to roll right by us. Without lenses, the images seemed blurry but took on tremendous depth, sometimes seeming to go past the screen – but also threatened to give you a headache. The film also seemed to slow down to distort movement and time.

A barren orange landscape – Mars or Tatooine – appeared, where the dancers were caged in pyramids or cubes like a Euclidean menagerie. The action cycled between landscapes and concluded with a woman having a conversation with an orange cactus.

More cheap talk followed. Reiner and Mitchell were filmed in close-up in another “conversation”; this one in gibberish against a geometric background. The film exploded into a kaleidoscope of movement in tilting angular steps as the screen split and mirrored the action.

The two men reappeared amidst colored ropes costumed like space-age sumo wrestlers, wrapped in golden shimmery fabric round their midriff that spilled off into a tail. They bore one another on their backs and rubbed their cheeks together impassively. The stars appeared again and the film concluded with a reminder to please recycle our 3D glasses.

“Tesseract.” Photo © Robert Altman.

Though the second part of “Tesseract” moved from film to live action, we were still held away from the action, looking at the dancing through a scrim. The music as we returned was a mix, starting recognizably with Roberta Flack’s longing recording of “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face.” Ryan Thomas Jenkins, wearing a purple robe with silver lamé shoes like a glam-rock druid, unhooded himself and strapped into a Steadicam.

Mitchell entered in a transparent, wide-sleeved body suit of white mesh, with white trunks underneath. He ran the perimeter of the stage and the rest of the sextet joined him to populate it.

The scrim became a screen. Lines and shapes that carried over ideas from the first part’s animation were projected on it at first but that quickly gave way to the big gimmick of the evening, projected images from the Steadicam. We were seeing the dance simultaneously live and filmed.

Reiner, at center stage, hinged to the floor, as his image was projected from above while the others gathered round him. When Reiner got up he made a circuit of the stage in tiny, shuffling steps like Balanchine’s Apollo. Mitchell led Jenkins on, who filmed Reiner in closeup and the camera multiplied and delayed his image.

By the time you started to wish the gimmickry would let up, some weird mysteries arose. The cameraman was onstage without his camera, yet the filming continued. Who was filming, then? Had this become “The Blair Witch Project?”

“Tesseract” was divided into sections more by switches in atmosphere and production elements than in the dance itself. A costume change to white shorts led into a slow incantation of a sextet as if it were the totentanz from “The Seventh Seal” with the cameraman at the rear. But it wasn’t entirely an exit – it was almost an apotheosis. Suddenly Eleanor Hullihan entered into the house from a front door and walked on to the apron. The score reduced to no more than chords as she reached her arm to us as the fourth wall was and wasn’t broken.

Mitchell appeared behind the scrim and took up her solo, tightly jogging or plunging into a cantilevered penchée. The group reentered in its line, now led by Jenkins. As he was still filming, the rest picked him up and carried him off. A projection of the dancers took over the scrim and morphed into stars as the lights faded.

There were so many layers of literal and metaphoric theatrical artifice that the second half’s split-screen action gave you the same kind of fatigue as 3D glasses. The choreography reflected that in its simplicity; sometimes the steps were no more than jogging.

As important as Reiner and Mitchell were to “Tesseract,” this was Atlas’ show. It couldn’t have been done without him or his ideas. The animations and projections had the futuristic quality of “Star Wars,” “Tron,” or even Cunningham’s own “Biped.” The irony is that sci-fi fascination with technology has been passé for years. Technology isn’t the strange and marvelous future; we’re glued to our smartphones right now, and it’s a pain in the neck.

Even as “Tesseract” shared Cunningham’s fascinations, it also built the arc of the performance by using tools of the theater – costume changes, space and lighting changes – rather than narrative, or even steps. The show staked its claim to be the heir to Cunningham’s aesthetic.

copyright © 2018 by Leigh Witchel

“Tesseract” – Charles Atlas / Rashaun Mitchell / Silas Reiner
BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, NY

December 13, 2017
Cover: Ryan Thomas Jenkins filming Silas Reiner in “Tesseract.” Photo © Robert Altman.

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