Words by Katie Hagan.
“I’m interested in the subject of the post-human or trans-human, which, in its most extreme form is the idea that we can download someone’s mind onto a computer chip. I find this both fascinating and completely absurd, but an example of digital technology’s tendency to dematerialise experience and pull us away from a reality grounded in the flesh. So Anti-Body asks questions and explores themes around what it means to exist in this hybrid, real/virtual world.” Alexander Whitley
Alexander Whitley Dance Company is no stranger to making innovative digital dance work. Exploring the symbiosis and possibility between dance and technology is embedded into the company’s DNA. Established in 2014 by artistic director Alexander Whitley, the company has created numerous works exploring dance through the lens of technology and the vice versa. Overflow confronts the dominance of tech and big data in our world, and Digital Body was made in response to the pandemic, when Alexander used technology as a way of connecting dancers during social isolation.
New work Anti-Body which comes to Sadler’s Wells on 6-8 October, continues the company’s orbit into the various ways dance and technology intersect, and the startling effects and implications they have on one another when they do.
As Alexander and I chat over Zoom (a coincidence which on reflection seems appropriate), we talk about where Anti-Body began. “I’d been reading about posthuman or transhuman theory for a while and had done a few R&D projects that draw on the theory. One book that I’d read was To be a Machine by Daniel O’Connell, which gives an overview of transhumanism and reveals some really absurd and disturbing lengths people will reach to live forever in a digital bliss, such as implanting sensors into their actual bodies…” Alexander says.
“There is always a critique in my work that looks at the effects technology is having on humans,” says Alexander. “Our starting aim with Anti-Body was to see what our relationship to technology is and the different direction it can take us in whether good, bad or something in-between. In Anti-Body we’re questioning the different ways humans are represented in the digital world and the tensions that arise when we investigate those representations and existences,” he continues.
Anti-Body is, then, a work exploring how we’re represented digitally, particularly through virtual counterparts and avatars. If, like me, you thought you were an exception and would never fall prey to this, perhaps consider that we are of course already representing ourselves in this way with the use of emojis and Apple Memojis.
Alexander Whitley Company has realised Anti-Body through adopting some pretty nifty approaches and software. To create the virtual representations, three dancers wear motion capture suits containing 17 sensors. Motion capture software linked to the sensors produces an avatar model of each dancer as they are moving. This avatar model is then put into an additional custom software that generates visuals, created by Uncharted Limbo Collective, that are then projected onto screens.
The screens play an essential role in bringing the virtual representation of the dancers’ movement to ‘life’. “There are six screens in total onstage, with each dancer performing with a screen in-front and behind them,” says Alexander. “They are wearing the motion capture suits, so their movement is feeding into the software in real time for the visuals to be screened.”
Alexander explains the dancers’ physical bodies and their virtual avatars on the screen mirror each other. The visuals created through the software then influence the dancers’ movement, in a kind of call and response.
The screens enable the dancers to experience the different ways their bodies exist virtually. Movement is manipulated, magnified and layered in this trippy, stratified virtual dance.
But all that glisters is not gold, as Anti-Body reveals. As well as the virtual being a way to magnify the dancers’ identity, it can also splinter it. “To highlight the different directions technology takes us, in Anti-Body each of the three dancers follows a path,” says Alexander. “In an act of defiance, one performer returns to the flesh and takes off the motion capture sensor suit. Another character is comfortable with the ways their body is transcending the physical. The third dancer completely disappears into the digital world, leaving their physical form,” explains Alexander.
Dance is so rooted in the gritty material reality of our fleshy bodies that it seems so at odds with the virtual, of which its existence is everywhere but nowhere at the same time. It’s this contrast and tension that Alexander is very much interested in.
Following in the company’s trajectory, Anti-Body is an abstract work — and deliberately so. “There isn’t an intention to seek humanity here,” says Alexander. “This is because when working with tech, the more realistic you try to be in representing the human, the weirder it gets. This is called the Uncanny Valley effect.”
“Instead, I find it more interesting to look the other way,” he continues. “Rather than trying to recreate something that’s realistic, I want to see what it looks like to abstract the human body and not fall into our tendency to read human meaning into the world.”
Anti-Body will revel in these tensions between the human and virtual however, and that will be thrilling to witness. “Mercury Prize 2021 nominated composer Hannah Peel and producer Kincaid have created the music, which is designed to create tension between the virtual and human,” says Alexander. “It’ll be an interesting contrast for the audience to experience: the warmer, fleshy, electro-acoustic sound paralleled with the more dystopic, de-human virtual.”
Anti-Body runs at Sadler’s Wells 6-8 October, book here.