In the first theatrical instalment in the Barbican’s Life Rewired season, Director Charles Atlas and choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener bring us Tesseract, an experimental piece that seeks to take us to new dimensions through dance and visual art. While they successfully create vivid worlds that are vibrant in colour and sound, there is little life to be found in their largely-impassive inhabitants, revealing that these worlds only exist on a deeply superficial level.
Divided into two acts, Tesseract begins with a 3D film that transports the audience to the worlds imagined by the creative trio of Atlas, Mitchell and Riener. Influenced by sci-fi TV shows and films, the alien worlds are made up of various landscapes – including a Tango-orange desert space – populated by the dancers. Along with bizarre makeup and costuming, the futuristic vibe of the piece is accentuated by synthetic soundscapes that help set the tone and pace of each world. In the second act, new dimensions are created right before our eyes as a cameraman walks among the dancers, projecting his footage onto a sheer screen separating the dancers from the audience. The company make no attempt to hide the fact that there is an intruder onstage; rather, his magenta clothing makes us constantly aware of his presence.
It isfascinating witnessing the action onstage become manipulated and distorted within the visuals projected onto the screen. The use of time lapse and copious special effects offer new perspectives to the dancer’s movements; a sinister feel is added when the image of a contorting woman is repeated in various colours, showing how the tone of a piece can be altered so easily. The kaleidoscope of colour, shape and movement is almost dizzying, as you find yourself transfixed by the projected visuals – sometimes even forgetting that the dancers are right there onstage. Whether intentional or not, this reflects our own tendency to experience life through a screen, recording or capturing images rather than living in the moment (as proven by some audience members who couldn’t help but clandestinely take a photo during the production).
Surprisingly, the most disappointing aspect of Tesseract is the dancing. While there are some group routines, most of Mitchell and Riener’s choreography resembles some sort of individual freestyle or improv exercise. There is also an awful lot of running and jumping around. It feels as though Mitchell and Riener have missed an opportunity by not having more synchronised group choreography, as these moments are mesmerising when they are caught on the Steadicam, operated by Ryan Thomas Jenkins. Instead, the randomness and repetitive nature of their movements takes away from the wonder they have created in the first place.
There is no doubt that Tesseract is an ambitious project that creatively explores how technology can be used in creating visual art and theatre; it is indeed perfectly suited to the Barbican’s 2019 season. What it lacks for the most part, however, is a human quality – some sort of context or story that keeps the audience invested in the action onstage. Eye contact with the camera is a prominent feature of Tesseract – both in the film and during the live-action performance – yet, even then, the dancers are completely expressionless.
This want for something meaningful is fulfilled, albeit briefly, as one dancer manages to find herself on the other side of the screen, standing unchanged and unfiltered in front of the audience. Her timid movements, matched by the gentle music played, suggests a new beginning as she enters into a new world. It’s a shame that this arc is not explored more throughout the performance. For without a narrative to guide the piece, Tesseract struggles to become more than two-dimensional.