The new two-part work, Tesseract, by artist Charles Atlas and choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, will be presented for the first time following several years of development at EMPAC on Friday, January 27th and Saturday, January 28th both at 8PM.
The evening will commence with the world premiere of the stereoscopic 3D video Tesseract ▢. A six-chapter work of science fiction, it is Atlas’ first “dance video” in over a decade. Filmed with a mobile camera rig that moves with the choreography, Tesseract ▢ traverses a series of hybrid and imagined worlds staged and filmed over a series of EMPAC production residencies. Each chapter combines a specific set, choreography, and camera motion to encompass pas de deux and ensemble pieces, choreographed and performed by former Merce Cunningham dancers Mitchell and Riener. Manipulating the 3D footage to combine live dance with animation, Atlas’ distinctive video effects reach into otherworldly dimensions beyond the stage.
For the second part of the evening, Tesseract ◯ expands the view from film frame to proscenium stage. A performance for six dancers and multiple mobile cameras—the footage of which Atlas will manipulate in real-time and project back onto the stage—Tesseract ◯ superimposes the space of dance with live cinematic production, rendering a choreographic analogue to the four-dimensional cube from which the piece takes its title.
“The hypercube or tesseract is described by moving the generating cube in the direction in which the fourth dimension extends.”
— Robert T. Browne, The Mystery of Space
“Rotations through a fourth dimension can't affect a three-dimensional figure any more than you can shake letters off a printed page… As I see it, in a four-dimensional figure a three-dimensional man has two choices every time he crosses a line of juncture, like a wall or a threshold. Ordinarily he will make a ninety-degree turn through the fourth dimension, only he doesn't feel it with his three dimensions… it must be a matter of subconscious orientation."
— Robert A. Heinlein, And He Built A Crooked House
Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 novella And He Built a Crooked House describes a California architect who designs a house based on a four-dimensional cube, a tesseract, comprised of eight cubed rooms. Unbeknownst to him or his clients, however, an earthquake has caused the invisible fourth dimension to shift prior to their first tour through the building. The tesseract house then takes its new inhabitants on a disorienting journey through multiple rooms, perspectives, and timescales that ends with another earthquake-induced slip of space/time as they are dropped with a jolt into the desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park.
Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener’s Tesseract charts a similar course: worlds shift and flip, and dancers spin and fall across unstable planes. Parallel timescales are reflected back on themselves, and emotions run high as speed, scale, and gravity refuse to remain constant. This journey starts from the perspective of 3D stereoscopic vision and progresses to the performative dimensionality of the theater stage. Although the artists had previously worked together with Merce Cunningham, Tesseract marks their first independent collaboration, and like the architect’s project in Heinlein’s novella, this ambitious work is conceived of as a chance to explore the potential of imagined architectures that can drift from cinema screen to proscenium stage.
The long cinematic history of stereoscopic films constructs a shared language among those of us who watch them. Industrially produced science fiction, like the 3D-animated and live-action hybrid Jupiter Ascending (2015), the constrained B-movie horror effects of Cube2: Hypercube (2002), and the world-bending stereoscopic effects of Dr Strange (2016) all provide material inspiration through which each element of Tesseract—the choreography, the sets, the image manipulation—emerge. Far from a narrative that posits 3D as providing an on-screen duplicate of how we see in reality, the potential of the media is that it engenders a different sort of vision, one in which sci-fi dimensionality can be explored.
While Tesseract ◻ moves through these wildly divergent visual worlds in order to transport the protagonists, and us, into the fourth dimension, Tesseract ◯ takes the opposite approach. An empty black stage resists fantastical sets or CG environments to give sole focus to the choreography. As in the film, the dancers respond to divergent situations, but this time the environments are invisible to them while the choreography communicates entire new worlds. At times the performers come together to build and define spatial geometries. At others, they appear caught between dimensions, defined only by their responses to unusual atmospheric or gravitational effects. As Atlas projects the dancers’ doubles back onto the space of the stage, we are sucked beyond the void to imagined environments as vivid as any Hollywood blockbuster. The dancers shape-shift, moving between roles and personalities, between affect and effect, marked as much by cinematic pathos as the recorded images previously on-screen.
Of course, in some ways this attention to extra-dimensionality is present in all three artists’ previous work. Atlas, well known for his pioneering approach to the relationship between technology and the body, has developed a vivid cinematic language for articulating dance on screen through an active, mobile camera that not only mediates but also draws attention to the camera. In his work, the camera is not just witness but also dancer, resulting in an image wholly inseparable from the dance it records. Riener and Mitchell are equally driven by the potential of choreography to reach beyond the limits of its inherent language of dimensionality. Tesseract combines Riener’s work at the interstitial space between language and movement with Mitchell’s approach to choreographing at the edge of spiritual and physical transformation.
During the production of Tesseract ◻ this notion of differing timescales and parallel universes remained at the forefront of our discussions, although not only in terms of artistic inspiration. The friction between the necessary rhythms of those in front of the camera and that of those who work behind it to switch the lenses, adjust the lights, balance the rig, and review the footage, remains resolutely opposed. At a very practical level, the dancers need to stay warm and mobile for performance and to prevent injury. This organic, bodily timeframe works against the staccato starts and stops of a movie production. This is especially the case on a 3D film set, which requires an extra crew member, the stereographer, who measures the convergence of the two focal lengths before every take in order to have the image protrude or recede from the screen. Rather than deny or avoid these frictions, Atlas, Mitchell, and Riener incorporate these different modes of production into a multifaceted artwork that combines the contrasting timescales of the recorded and the live in order to use the material fact of the artwork’s production as an underlying dramaturgical and choreographic methodology.
This technique and its contradictions are especially foregrounded in one scene from Tesseract ◻, in which the camera continually circles the dancers as dense fog swirls at their feet. However, by deliberately eschewing montage in favor of showing the continuous time of the dance, the Steadicam operator’s body feels the double strain of the technical and the physical by undertaking a series of “straight-takes” while carrying a 75-pound, two-camera, 3D rig to frame the dancers’ duet. While this work remains invisible, the effect on-screen is one of the camera’s delicate switch from observer to participant, as its close-up and mobile viewpoint traces a liminal space beyond the theatrical language that the choreography implies.
In response, Tesseract ◯ reveals the means of production of Tesseract ◻, as Mitchell and Riener’s choreography places the Steadicam and its operator center stage. The camera operator, Ryan Jenkins, now takes on the dual role of operator-performer, both foil and accompaniment to the dancers through his presence both in front of the audience and behind the camera. In essence he represents the collapse of two parallel universes. This gesture dramatizes the elliptical relationship between film time and theatrical time, between the technical and the artistic. Tesseract points to the rich history of this subjective camera, of which the development of Steadicam for complex tracking shots is key, while the use of the straight-take presents these two media timescales as one.
The word tesseract is derived from the Greek tessares, or four, and aktis, a ray of light. Atlas, Mitchell, and Riener’s Tesseract alludes not only to the romance of science fiction’s beaming rays, but also to light as the principal element of cinematography, projection, and theatrical technique. The artists combine aktis with the fourth dimension, usually understood as time. However, there is an extra-dimensionality here that is revealed through the interaction of the real and the imaged, the live and the recorded. In the midst of Tesseract ◻, the dancers find themselves in a sci-fi desert landscape, which recalls both the end of Heinlein’s novella and also Edwin Abbott Abbott’s 1884 society-baiting satirical novel Flatland. Yet as Flatland describes a class society in which the protagonists’ geometry equals hierarchy, here the interaction of the dancers with their designated geometries is imagined with humor as an alternate framework. Like the space between our two eyes that nevertheless see as one, this framework articulates an alternate fourth dimension with the potential to become visible.
—Victoria Brooks, Curator of Time-Based Visual Arts, 2017
Dates + Tickets
Tesseract ▢ by Charles Atlas / Rashaun Mitchell / Silas Riener was commissioned and produced by EMPAC/ Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and co-commissioned by Triangle France. Score composed by Fennesz.
Tesseract ◯ by Charles Atlas / Rashaun Mitchell / Silas Riener was co-commissioned by EMPAC/ Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and On the Boards. Score composed and performed by Mas Ysa.
Tesseract was made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Tesseract was developed, in part, through residencies at EMPAC/ Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The Watermill Center, and the Walker Art Center.