Chunky Move's Mortal Engine fuses dance and technology to create a show like no other. The piece, performed in NY at BAM December 9-12, takes place almost entirely on a tilted white platform, creating an interesting challenge for the dancers, who can slide straight down it if launched the right way. At times the front half of this platform raises itself vertically, constructing a wall in front of which the dancers move.
Although I had been looking forward to the show already, the sign upon entering the theater, warning us of strobe, smoke, lasers and partial nudity, sealed the deal. "This is my kinda show," I thought. And I was not disappointed. For anyone who had seen the company perform Glow last year at The Kitchen, Mortal Engine expands on this original solo, introducing human-human relationships in addition to human-technology. I only agreed partially with the woman sitting next to me, who described the work to her boyfriend (with sound effects) as alternately explosive ("galfkdjdsklhgsjiesh!!!") and slow ("beep.....beep.....beep....."). Most of the time, the electronic (and sometimes grating) sounds of Ben Frost's music, combined with the crazy laser and video design by Robin Fox, results in chaos that inspires awe rather than harmony. The work was refreshingly short - 55 minutes - but in my opinion still could have cut out some of the run-on video/laser shows that played on the stage devoid of dancers.
What gives Mortal Engine its life is the interactive video software developed by Frieder Weiss. The system generates light, video and sound from the movements of the dancers, and these interactions happen all in real time. The work has no pre-rendered video or images, and the music also allows various sounds taken from the movement data to enter its mix.
"In addition, pre-composed phrases are triggered by the dancers' motion or by the operator in relation to where the performers are in any given sequence. This essentially means that there are no fixed timelines and the production flexes according to the rhythm of the performers. While the scenes are always in the same order, the work is truly live every night, not completely predictable and ever changing." [Director's Notes, Gideon Obarzanek]
If Weiss' software gives Mortal Engine its life, it is Obarzanek's choreography that gives it its breath. For without one, surely the other cannot exist. Obarzanek's movement is strong and carnal, using an important pinch of repetition, and transforming the dancers into creatures that ingeniously meld with the video and lights. The points at which human ends and light begins become beautifully blurry. The dancers are magnificent, especially in one section when the six of them dance in duets while the lights strobe incessantly. How can they even see anything? "It must be muscle memory," my friend reminds me. Wow.
My favorite section of the work is the first image - a female soloist bending and twisting in a delightful floor work phrase. Laying on the white platform, she is slowly overcome by a group of five dancers in black. Another section towards the end reminds me of an alien invasion, with green lasers shooting out through smoke into the audience. Truly rad, a must-see for those art-blind couch potatoes who think video games are the only way to experience an alternate universe here on earth.