One of the most platitudinous platitudes offered in defense of performance art is that the genre provides the special pleasure of immediacy. During a performance, there's a living, breathing, highly skilled artist doing something provocative right in front of you. You're sharing the same air with this person. You're "present" with this person. You're watching each rise and fall of tender taken breath, watching their ligaments strain a little, watching them stumble, watching them try—as you try everyday—to perform humanity beautifully or heinously or whateverly. And performances really are special, in that you can't see the exact same one twice.
In Tesseract, which runs at On the Boards through Sunday, video artist Charles Atlas and choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener question the living shit out of that platitude in a hallucinatory, playful, challenging, and at times even nauseating way that I've never quite seen before.
Before we get going here, it helps to know that a tesseract is a cube inside a cube. It's a representation of a 4-D thing in a 3-D world. As Carl Sagan describes beautifully in Cosmos: The Edge of Forever, our ability to perceive the fourth dimension (aka spacetime) is extremely limited because we are 3-D creatures trapped in a 3-D world.
You can get a sense of those limitations if you compare your hand with the shadow of your hand. If we were 2-D creatures trapped in a 2-D world, our hands would look only like the shadow of our hands. When we jump into the 3-D world, we gain all of this new information about our hand: texture, hair, freckles, etc. But what new information would we gain about our hand if we jumped into a 4-D world? It's sort of impossible to show you in the 3-D world, but that's what Tesseract is trying to do.
Conceptually, some of the questions Atlas, Mitchell, and Riener seem to be banging around in this piece include: What does "immediacy" mean in the multiverse? What does "the present" mean when time-space exists on a continuum and scientists think there are at least 10 different dimensions? What does dance look like in the fourth dimension, and can you show them all at once in a kind of cubist, or, I guess, tesseractist way? And, given the digital universe many of us occupy for most of the day, can we even have one, pure, unmediated experience with a human body in the 21st century? Would you like some weed, my dude, or are you good?
The performance has two parts, which are sort of preciously titled Tesseract ▢ and Tesseract ◯.
During the first part, the audience dons battery-powered 3-D glasses to watch a 3-D video of a dance, which was directed by Atlas and developed at Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.
The video teleports you around six different sci-fi worlds. In one scene, the dancers look like they're dancing in the video for A-ha's "Take On Me." In another, alien-like Davie Bowie creatures appear to be exploring their newly acquired people suits on a foggy, UFO landing site. The most impressive world is a bubblegum-colored land of geometric shapes, wherein romper-clad dancers appear to dance in rewind, though they're dancing in real time. As those movements collapse the present and the past, Atlas applies a kaleidoscope filter to this world, just in case you weren't getting the hint that he's trying to show you four different dimensions all at one time.
During the second part of the show, we ditch our 3-D glasses. A scrim drops, and we watch a cameraman (Ryan Thomas Jenkins) dressed in pink, silk wizard robes and disco ball shoes strap on a huge steadicam.
Then the dancers—most of whom performed in the earlier video—take the bare stage wearing white underwear and gauzy robes. Jenkins shoots the dancers, and Atlas manipulates that video in real time as it's projected onto the scrim.
In general, the movements are liquid, organic, animalistic, occasionally electrified. Lots of controlled stumbling and accidental-looking synchronicity. All of this contrasts with the abstract, uncanny worlds they inhabited in the 3-D video, the bare stage they inhabit in the second part, and the camera's digital manipulations of their bodies.
Just when all the digital whoopty-do started to overload my sensorium, just as I was about to write off the show as an technologically neat but emotionally shallow aesthetic experience designed only for pointy-headed art nerds, this thing happened.
I won't spoil the surprise, but when it happened, the entire show snapped into place for me. I felt as if I were seeing dance for the first time, and I felt really glowy about dance's capacity to produce a thrilling, primal sense of immediacy, even in a digital multiverse.
I don't recommend Tesseract to everybody. And it does kind of suffer from the Kid With a New Toy Syndrome. If both halves were 10 minutes shorter, I think it could have hit harder. But, if you're open to seeing some wildness, some extremely good dancing, and if you're sensitive to the sadomasochistic pleasures of mimesis, then you gotta get to OtB this weekend.