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Juventas To Premiere Cyberactivist Ballet


Since its founding, in 2005, the Juventas New Music Ensemble has gone well beyond the typical performance activities of Boston-based contemporary-music ensembles. Led by conductor and artistic director Lidiya Yankovskaya, they have, in addition to premiering a multitude of works by emerging composers, produced a number of full-length staged works, garnering the American Prize and two awards from the National Opera Association for their recent operatic productions.

The BU Dance Theater on November 15th and 16th will see the premiere of Peter Van Zandt Lane’s HackPolitik, an hour-long multimedia piece for chamber ensemble, electronic sound, video, and dance. The ensemble has been collaborating with choreographer Kate Ladenheim and her Brooklyn-based dance troupe the People Movers, as well as designer and video artist Joey Frangieh. The ballet centers on an unusual topic: cyberactivism in the 21st century. The ensemble has described the work as “a surrealist exploration of how technology has affected political dissidence, blurring the lines between activism and anarchy.”

Some excerpts from HackPolitik were previewed in a Juventas concert last December, reviewed by BMInt here. The final production boasts a far larger cast of dancers, full costuming and digital set design, and interactive video augmenting the dancers’ performance.

About all of this we had a few questions for HackPolitik composer (and BMInt staff writer with 48 pieces to his credit) Peter Van Zandt Lane and choreographer Kate Ladenheim:

BMInt: How did this piece come about?

PVZL: I have wanted to compose a ballet for quite a while now, since so much of my favorite orchestral music growing up was originally intended for dance. When I decided to pursue composition fulltime, a lot of elements of neoclassical ballet music had influence. I have wanted to get back to those roots, and finishing graduate school seemed like a good time to take on this project. I was lucky to find a willing collaborator in Lidiya, who quickly set me up with choreographer Kate Ladenheim to start generating material. I composed a few scenes for the December 2012 preview, and Kate did some choreography. I spent much of the following spring at Yaddo and MacDowell arts colonies composing the rest of the piece and corresponding with Kate as the music came out.

Kate, what drew you to this collaboration?

KL: I really liked Peter’s past music: I found it really kinetic, nuanced, and interesting. I was also intrigued by the subject matter. When I was first approached to make a dance about computer hackers, I was a bit overwhelmed and skeptical of whether it would work; I usually pick themes that are more directly movement-based. However, I knew that it would challenge me and hoped it would open me up to a world that I had never explored before.

PVZL: One of the things that really got me excited about this concept was that all of the action in this story occurs online. Since none of it has physical form, I thought it would be a lot of fun to figure out ways to represent things like social networks and cyberattacks. It’s been exciting for me to see how Kate has tackled some of these intense challenges. Originally I figured we’d really be able to communicate only a faint outline of the story, and would have to focus more on personality. But I think a lot of subtlety is coming through the ballet, much more than I originally anticipated.

I expect this isn’t ballet in the traditional sense. What styles of dance are you working with?

KL: Describing what I do is always hard, especially because contemporary dance is an umbrella term that covers everything from contemporary ballet to performance art—anything from highly stylized and technical forms to ultra-pedestrian movements to site-specific work to work that incorporates speech. This piece is definitely a ballet in that it’s a collaborative work of music and dance that follows a narrative and the story is told through music and movement. However, “ballet” suggests that the work is classical, which this certainly is not. I had a lot of classical training and I do love the style, the technique, the discipline of it—but I have moved away from such a strict vocabulary in favor of forms that allow for more freedom of expression. I don’t really think that classical vocabulary would lend itself to successfully demonstrating the online world of Anonymous.

The work I create is somewhere in the middle of that spectrum—we are all highly trained, athletic, and technical. My movement vocabulary draws from contemporary forms such as Gaga technique, Forsythe improvisation techniques, contact improvisation, and release technique as well as classical ballet—but my work does not strictly follow any one of those. It works for the nature of this piece because Anonymous, as I see it, is like that too, a nebula of many different philosophies that together create this catalyst for forward motion.

Why this topic? Cyberactivism seems a far cry from, say, Stravinsky’s subject matter.

PVZL: True. One of the points the reviewer made of the preview performance last year was that basing a ballet on a hot-button issue like the hacktivist group Anonymous was an attempt to keep ballet relevant to contemporary audiences. If more people are interested because of the topic, then great. But I chose this topic because I saw a correlation between how I as a composer use technology to augment the possibilities of traditional instruments and how cyberactivists use technology to augment their methods of political dissidence.

The preview concert was more or less character studies of some of the main players in HackPolitik. The rest of the piece conveys two politically driven (one personally driven) cyberattacks carried out by these characters. We start to see the egos of the characters override their agenda of averting power hierarchies, which leads everyone to a classically tragic end. There’s a lot about personality in there, which is where we can really connect musical ideas to the story.

How about creating dance that connects to these musical ideas?

KL: I like working with Peter’s music because it’s very driving, but there is also so much nuance and subtlety to play with. For this piece in particular, the music really allowed me to dive into each character—Sabu, Kayla, and Topiary all had specific instruments and themes that really allowed for their specific personalities to emerge—and keep developing as the piece moved on. Each character has a set of thematic movements and gestures that defines who they are; these were developed through the character’s relationships, spatial patterns, and musical context. The music also sets up this order/chaos dichotomy that characterizes the online world and Anonymous as a whole. The online world (and social media in particular) is very noisy. The things that emerge as most important are the ones that the group can coalesce around; you can definitely hear this in the music.

I’ve also really enjoyed working with the electronic manipulation of the live instruments. I think having the electronic component being a part of the orchestra itself is important thematically for this piece. Also it gives us some really interesting sounds and textures to work with for our movement vocabulary.

It sounds like the collaboration has been fulfilling for you both, so will you continue to collaborate after the Boston premieres?

KL: I certainly don’t want the premiere to be the end of HackPolitik. As a Brooklyn-based company, we are working towards a New York production, so that we can engage our local audience as well. I’ve been in discussions with arts presenters in other cities as well. I really like to generate enough funding to tour the piece; my big dreams include international touring.

PVZL: Yes, we’re really hoping to take this piece to New York sometime next year. It would give us the opportunity to perform the piece on the dance company’s home turf, as well as revisit our work and find places to improve. As for now, we’re in full-on rehearsal mode, and will be very busy until the premiere!

HackPolitik will be premiered by Juventas New Music Ensemble and the People Movers Contemporary Dance at the Boston University Dance Theater on November 15 and 16 at 8pm. Tickets are available here.

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