Peter Van Zandt Lane’s ballet, HackPolitik, could not have been more timely, arriving Friday and Saturday at the BU Dance Theater in performances by Juventas New Music Ensemble and People Movers Dance just as headlines were appearing about the latest clandestine penetrations of government institutions by the amorphous hackers’ collective Anonymous. The work is not a ballet in the understood sense of employing a specific vocabulary of movement, but it is clearly the descendant of the form in that it tells a story with movement and music over an extended length. Nutcracker it was not, but certainly one could see its debts to Petroushka in how puppetmaster hackers were pulling strings of victims.
In his program manifesto Lane stated, “HackPolitik is an investigation though music and dance of how we engage technology in the 21st century. It explores the thin line between activism and anarchy, anonymity and ego, gender identity and personality. All of the choreography is a physical interpretation of the abstract interactions occurring in cyberspace.”
People Movers Dance Theater’s choreographer Kate Landenheim’s challenge was to make flesh the 14 detailed, yet rather schematic scenes. Here are some examples from Lane’s scenario:
“Corporations including PayPal … are pressured to freeze donations to Wikileaks. … In retaliation … multitudes of cyberactivists launch a series of DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks. … Enter Civil … who singlehandedly crashes Visa and MasterCard. Drunk on power, Civil then turns on the Anons and crashes their network.… Using SQL injection, the LutlzSec trio infiltrates Federal’s secret files.”
Ladenheim dressed her nine dancers in black and white with faces painted in masks. Some individuality was evident from wild hair and makeup design by Christy Robinson, Jeff Robinson and Colleen Martin, and from a Pierrot-like checkered hat on one dancer. Some were in tights and leotards, others in trousers or skirts. There were no grays. The bare stage was enlivened by occasional pattern projections on the floor and minimal lighting cues—basically warm overhead lights or blue cross-lights. On the back wall a projection screen reflected Joey Frangieh’s monochrome abstractions: smokestreams of chaos, graph lines, mathematical curves, and once, strikingly and helpfully, words from the hackers manifesto. Joey Frangieh’s live video feeds, in a sepia monochrome, also appeared at times—most effectively when they were “fractalated” into a kind of Muybridge motion study.
Still, if the projection could have done more plot exegesis and less chaos representation, perhaps by showing us some malevolent code or other such, we might have had a clearer idea of what was happening on stage. Furthermore, incorporating some dialogue, narration or singing into the electronic sound mix might help.
The very athletic dancing was mostly flatfooted but at times en pointe, variously recalling Twyla Tharp, José Limón and even Jerome Robbins, with leaps, throws, carries, spins, acrobatic moves, sculptural tableaux, line dances, fluttering hand gestures, pantomime, walking, running and posing in various degrees of awkwardness and lyrical line—all noticeably responsive to the music. Did it succeed in telling a very detailed story? Not really. We got chaos, scheming, rivalries, generalized emotions. But that was probably enough because the movement was brisk, varied and engaged and entertaining on its own abstract terms.
My scene-by-scene notes are too lengthy and vague to cite in detail, especially since in the dark I had no precise notion of who was doing what to whom on stage. Nevertheless, let me try and paint some pictures.
Solo: The Pierrot-like figure suddenly appears to be pulled this way and that with invisible strings, like a tortured Petroushka, as a tutti of great rhythmic insistence resolved to tritones on the viola.
Solo: A tall female dancer with a long and lean line impersonated Diana the Huntress to a sobbing bass clarinet with electronic bell underpinnings.
Hydra: A mad scene worthy of grand opera or Grand-Guignol—the solo male dancer succumbs to delirium tremens or Saint Vitus’s Dance. Then a mournful string trio gives wing to vague hopefulness.
It’s 9:15: The full company is now cavorting and seem to be saying goodbye in fluttering waves, but I bet there’s one more big number before the final blackout.
Lane’s score was friendly to listeners, emotionally and texturally varied. Nate Tucker’s complex yet at times tribal beat was primarily what the dancers made manifest. Some gorgeous solos from the clarinet and bass clarinet of Wolcott Humphrey, and duets and solos from cellist Brent Selby, were the lyrical highlights—especially the cello’s duet with its modified, prerecorded self. But the complete ensemble was the colorful star. Ballet needs live music and this one offered it on the highest level.
Lane’s voice is expressed with a large and varied vocabulary. At times we heard Steve Reichian motoric repetitions with subtle changes being rung, while at others we heard evocations of solo Bach suites. We also got jazzy Third Stream grooviness and even some Bernsteinian Sharks and Jets. But Lane made the soundworld his own with distinctive electronic overlays which were quite un-bleep-bloopian. They growled, trembled, rang and commented on the live instruments in consistently intriguing ways.
All composers should have the benefit of executants on the level of Juventas under Lidiya Yankovskaya. The ensemble of eight showed an exemplary command of the rhythmically complex materials. At one point, Yankovskaya explains, “The string players have to play one rhythm pizzicato while playing a cross-rhythm with a left-hand pizz., like pizzing triplets with the right hand and a rhythm that fits into quadruplets in the left, all the while fitting into other players’ additional cross-rhythms.” There was not much opportunity for rubato since the live players had to line up precisely with Lane’s electronics, which apparently did not admit of tempo variability in performance. I watched the conductor intently and was astonished at her clear subdivisions of the beat. Yankovskaya told me afterward in response to my questions about how she dealt with the rhythmic complexity that she checked her metronome at the start of each section to keep the live players properly aligned with prerecorded ones. That this was put together with only four rehearsal boggles the imagination.