Does anyone remember Erich von Däniken, the crackpot author who proposed that aliens from outer space had constructed the Egyptian pyramids, and gained a cult following in the late 1960s and early 1970s? I mention him because his zeitgeisty strain of psychedelic, sci-fi mysticism sprang vividly to mind in Tesseract, a new work by veteran dance film-maker Charles Atlas and Merce Cunningham company alumni Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. The piece even featured an abstract pyramid shape in a day-glo desert, and a cosmic projection of a galaxy from which I half expected one moving pinpoint of light to morph into the Starship Enterprise (from the original Shatner/Nimoy era, not that new-fangled 1980s revival) and shoot out from deep space towards me.
Tellingly, I was as much disappointed as relieved that Tesseract didn’t go the full Star Trek. The piece draws its inspiration from a 1941 novella by science fiction writer Robert A Heinlein – who did, in fact, become pretty zeitgeisty in the 1960s and 1970s – in which a house constructed as a 4D cube suffers a slippage of its invisible fourth dimension, leaving its visitors wandering through space-time discontinuities within it. I don’t really understand that either, but it sounds groovy.
Tesseract □ – as the first part of the evening is called – is indeed quite groovy. It consists of a film that we watch through 3D goggles, so that the giant-size dancers seem to recede into the far distance or reach their errant limbs right out into the auditorium. The opening scene is witnessed as if through a moving viewfinder that reveals a monochrome room of chalk-drawn walls and panels, inhabited by six people in geometric costumes, doing Cunningham technique. Cut to a scene with the dancers in neon wigs and iridescent outfits, rolling on the floor – except the camera is upside down, so that they look like lurid bats, clinging to the ceiling (a device used to far more psychological effect in Gaspar Noé’s 2018 film Climax).
There’s a cloud upon which two silver-clad women orbit each other to space-age chords, and there’s that orange desert strewn with geometric shapes – cone, cube, sphere, ring – and the dancers draped on dunes. It goes on: a kaleidoscope of choreographic patterns, in which it takes a while to notice that time is in fact played backwards; a forest of coloured plastic cords in which Mitchell and Riener, dressed in a kind of strappy plastic plumage, seem to do some kind of courtship dance. It’s all quite trippy – but where does the trip take us?
It takes us, basically, to part 2, which is called Tesseract ○. Here the dancers are live on stage, but now tracked by a Steadicam operator so that a relay of their images can be projected above and around them. The style is still Cunningham, but the gauzy costumes are now more Trisha Brown. Discombobulatingly, it opens with a playback of Roberta Flack singing her 1972 hit “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Hard to say why, but it certainly contributes to the retro look and feel. As the dancers spin and swoop, their images loom and ebb above them, sometimes looping into top-shots, sometimes splitting into multiple screens, coalescing into liquid outlines, or overlapping in motion trails. My mind triggered with memories of early experiments in music video – trails and flails in Kate Bush’s “Wow”, the kaleidoscope heads in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – but often it feels like a series of zooms and superimpositions and angles and splits done simply for their own effect.
Is Tesseract – or rather, Tesseract □ and Tesseract ○ – in the end just that: a series of effects, inflated by technomysticism? Does it matter? Well, it’s presented as part of the Barbican Centre’s Life Rewired season, which is billed as an investigation into and response to the technological changes of our times. Perhaps Tesseract was simply shown on the wrong platform: it looks not out of place, but out of time. For if its premise is all about space, its feeling is dominated by one particular sense of time: the past.