By Steve Sucato
Pittsburgh Current Dance Writer
A post-apocalyptic landscape, cyborgs and an all-powerful artificial neural conscious; no it’s not the premise behind the Terminator movies, but rather of multidisciplinary performance troupe slowdanger’s world-premiere work, empathy machine.
The five-year-old slowdanger, comprised of the duo of Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, will present the work August 30 & 31 at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios.
The work is a product of several previous iterations including an improvisation-based movement exercise at Canada’s Springboard Danse Montréal in the summer of 2018, a prequel of sorts to VLX which was performed last October at 937 Gallery. This new, completed version picks up where VLX left off and uses the same creative team of VJ, projection mapper, and creative technologist, Cornelius Henke (a.k.a. ProjectileObjects) who created a 16-foot in diameter LED light ring that became a central character in the work, and Carnegie Mellon University computational artist Char Stiles whose video projections for the work includes an open computer vision contour detector that is utilized to analyze the performers and project images of them during the performance as an aesthetic filter, says Thompson.
“Technically, empathy machine is the next episode in the world of what VLX was,” says Knight. “VLX was about leading us toward this moment of something really intense happening and empathy machine is about the arrival to where we go from there.”
In addition, empathy machine also “questions societal reflexes by desexualizing intimacy, and examines empathy as an ongoing process of sensitizing ourselves to our bodies, companions, and environment,” say Knight and Taylor.
Set to an original atmospheric electronic soundscape by Knight and Thompson that includes recorded material and live vocalizations (singing and text recitation), the hour-long dance-theater work, while keeping the same compositional structure of VLX, explores a new storyline with new choreography.
Says Knight, empathy machine is the arrival of these cyborg-human characters who are looking to reinstate empathy and interpersonal relationship that was lost in the post-apocalyptic ending of VLX.”
Unlike the Terminator franchise, empathy machine’s version of “Skynet,” in this case the LED light ring, is a benevolent entity who sacrifices itself to help the disco-ball mask wearing cyborg-human characters regain their humanity and empathy.
Reprising their undefined roles from VLX will be performers, Knight, Thompson, Ru Emmons, Roberta Guido and Attack Theatre’s Simon Phillips.
“In choosing performers to work with we look for folks who hold a strong sense of their own individuality,” says Thompson. “Performers who are also sensitive and willing to explore a broad spectrum of movement qualities.”
The choreography for the work’s various sections is dished out in a wild-ride contemporary movement language mixing moments of quiet huddling and intertwining of dancer bodies with moments of quick moving abandon as dancers launch themselves about the stage.
“We have a lot of sections where we are pushing the athleticism in the dancers’ bodies and that all has narrative meaning,” say Knight and Thompson. To see a video of excerpts from a work-in-progress showing at The Space Upstairs visit: https://youtu.be/0j0T_ILsTnU.
Knight and Thompson say they chose to perform the work not in the Kelly Strayhorn’s main theater space but in the smaller Alloy Studios for the intimate audience experience that the Alloy space offers.
“The work is well-suited for a closer-up, semi-in-the-round audience setup,” says Knight.
After its Pittsburgh premiere, slowdanger will tour the work to The Segal Theatre CUNY Graduate Center in New York for a preview showing on September 5 and to Washington D.C.’s Dance Place on October 5 & 6.