Struggles at the dance-technology interface

Zsuzsanna Soboslay: Sarah Neville, Ada

Elise May, Ada

Elise May, Ada

Elise May, Ada

Do you believe nature is written in numbers?
I have my hopes.

Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of the romantic poet Lord Byron and a pure mathematician, Annabella Millbank. She is considered the mother of the digital revolution as she wrote the first computer software (for Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine”) some 200 years in advance of the hardware that is only now being developed to adequately utilise it. Ada also prophesied electronic music, artificial intelligence and a calculus of the nervous system. These prophecies are the theme of a dance work, Ada, as is the fact that the software named after her is both the code used by the US Defence Force to fly fighter jets and to control satellites and run nuclear reactors. So the destructive nature of this historical character’s namesake is also problematised.

Ada represents a yoking of Sarah Neville’s interest in the cyberfeminist investigations of Sadie Plant and VNS-Matrix to her own classically-trained background in dance. The work has undergone 4 previous developmental processes (3 in Adelaide, 1 in Brisbane) before this presentation playing at the end of a 5-week Fellowship at the Choreographic Centre. This version sustains a straightforward narrative on the life and character of Ada, mixing 19th century costume, dialogue and images of early calculus and maps of the human brain with a contemporary interactive technology, which in the long run aims to have performers controlling the sequence of sound and projections via their costumes as they perform. At present, a cyberdoll webcaster figure (Wendy McPhee) calls the shots whilst stop-start digital projection plays over bodies in an essentially conservative and hieroglyphic sequence of re-enactments between Ada (Elise May) and Babbage (Chris Ryan). Choreographically, Ada’s movement sequences are well-performed, with May exhibiting a fine, if traditional, technical ability, but do not extend the dance alphabet, rather, sustain what one would easily call to mind in assocation with bodies and computers.

The webcaster commands repeats and reverses of sequences. These are executed with great precision, but I’m not sure to what effect. These movements display the mechanics of structure and the discipline of obeisance to it. When I put my mind to it, after the event, I suppose they raise the question of whether the human mind determines patterns of interaction, or patterns of interaction condition the emotional mind; but the coolness of this production does not give any particular bite to this strategy in real time. Even more problematic for me is the “slightly futuristic” webcaster’s angular and restricted cyborg movement vocabulary: it’s hard to tell whether the limitations are of concept, direction or performer input. Certainly, McPhee presents as a much quirkier persona just seeing her walk by offstage. There is something particularly unhappy for me in this aspect, the webcaster’s blunt-cut wigged, barking, control-gun toting role recalling opening credits of early James Bond films (with a hint of S&M) and belie the feminist questionings to which I hope and feel the rest of the production aims.

Aesthetically, little catches the poetry of movement in the first sail-like lifting of the fabric canopy beneath which the performance then evolves. But maybe that is not the point. The presentation at this stage seems to me caught between aesthetics in a problematic yet highly stimulating way, raising particularly sticky questions about the dance-technology interface.

What we do see is the grace, restriction and precision (tensions between control and liberation) of the 19th century bodice, mirroring Ada’s struggle to be counted as a mathematician and be taken seriously as a woman. Interestingly, one of the problems of contemporary studies in artificial intelligence is how to replicate the creative waywardness of the human body and mind. The production attempts some of this in its narrative (Ada’s forwardness and her obsessive genius) and in the choreography around her hysterical fits and collapses (she eventually suffered death by cervical cancer). These collapse sequences are adequate, if but cyphers to a truly affective representation, failing to capture a sense of those overwrought nerves she sought to map out into calculus. Although Sarah Neville speaks of the work as “still (and after all) a tragedy of character,” the performance is curiously unmoving.

For all the work on character, we are left not with a particular character, but a generalised representation of “genius” (as per the narrative) and “collapse” (as per the falling movement). Surely in logging a calculus of the body there is not just the calculus of parts but the force and charge of overall patterns, and, as repeated often by “Ada”, her aspirations towards the cosmic or “sidereal”—which to me suggest a force or forces beyond our measurements—just as the interior of her own body could not finally be measured, but multiplied and divided itself away.

Still, one of the strongest aspects of the production is its subtle suggestion that the body can know, and dance in response to, its own mathematics. Neville’s idea of the “creative/destructive” nexus is also interesting: perhaps the idea of a calculus is implicitly destructive (and perhaps politically pertinent to consider in our time). The binary restricts impulse into opposition: if not one, then zero; if not zero, then one. To calculate is to act from a particular perspective that sees opposition as enemy, self as righteous. Perhaps to digitalise is to see “other” as authoritative, self as problematic, as was perhaps her own body (or as was perhaps “woman;” or as is perhaps dance). To find the choreography to reflect this quandary would be a great achievement. I wonder if this might be an aim of the production.

At this stage Ada is not yet adequately a “tragedy of character”, but this is not the main quandary I am left with. Should the cybercoat costume come to fully-workable fruition, what would be achieved in the end? The illusion of a performer in control of wayward elements, her own conscious director, self-actualising and responding to what she actualises as she goes? I find myself thinking: at some, any point, the performer could well ignore all her own directorial choices. And no-one in the audience would ever know.

Ada, choreographer Sarah Neville, performers Elise May, Wendy McPhee, Chris Ryan, sound design/score Nic Mollison, set design David Worrall, costume design Elise May, Summa Durie; wearable architecture Aaron Veryard, Elise May, vIdeo Matt Innes, programming Benn Woods, Talbet Fulthorpe; Choreographic Centre Canberra September 25-28, October 2-5

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 23

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002