How can one access the future? What might it feel like to sit with the not-present, and the unknown? Colette Sadler’s Learning from the Future doesn’t project forwards from existing social or political realities, but rather draws liberally from a rich palette of sci-fi aesthetics. This performance transforms Nottingham Contemporary’s huge downstairs space into a dim environment, occasionally and suddenly flooded with vivid and saturated colours, and dominated by a flat, upright and slender form. It makes one think of ancient tablets bearing cuneiform script, stone monoliths, smartphones, graves and coffins, monuments, server racks, and that tall looming thing from 2001: A Space Odyssey, borrowing with it Kubrick’s stark aesthetic of the unknown: a feeling of spaciousness, an ever-broadening field of perception, and a sense of doom.
Leah Marojevic is some kind of robot/android/body-code – sleek, all surface, framed exquisitely by Eyal Meistel in a golden bodysuit – an echo of femininity that is carried with unfakeable precision, strength and kinetic intelligence. Isolating limbs, head, back and torso, she shifts slowly. This movement is smooth; the beginnings and endings of things are crisp. She reverses, flawlessly. Suddenly a roll makes its way down her spine – instigating a ripple that flows throughout her whole body as if it’s a single, unbroken material. Again, faster. Again, now pausing half-way, only to reverse – and so on in increasing speed. It draws from hip-hop (isolations, popping, rolls, quick gestural sequences), and the virtuosity of the form makes me wonder whether this movement is intended to impress.
My perception of Marojevic’s dancing suffers inevitable comparison with the videos of incredibly virtuosic movement that populate social media feeds. Coupled with the representational game of the android – an unforgettably human figure pretending an inhumanity – I notice myself not really watching this dancing, so much as searching for a flicker or fidget – a flaw, a failure, a betrayal of the body – any imperfection within this impeccable solo. But then, somehow, I fall out of that, and just watch with surprise and admiration – grateful to see a work and dancer so heavily invest in developing the skills to undertake this kind of movement.
Refined and rich images plays out across the surface of this monolith. Mikko Gaestel’s visuals cause textures to disconcertingly shimmer and warp before our eyes. A hand spins slowly, and then we flicker past a beautifully rendered series of archaic tools and technology. The hand, with which the body manipulates materials; these tools, which the hand uses to effect the world; this screen, now overcoming the need for human touch, returning us to the body with a dizzying series of fragmented sculptures: echoes of flesh frozen in the past, and cracked, limbless forms. We arrive at a digitally rendered figure: hollowed out, decapitated, without organs. An echo of an echo of femininity. An architectural ribbon of skin – there is nothing that this system, this computer, this digital and violent force, can find here.
Humanity’s intelligence seems to have culminated in the flickers of light that emanate from this form – what purpose or possibility, then, is left in the material body? In flesh, weight, limbs, a head, or hands? The dancer continues to dance; rolling, twisting, turning. A series of impossibly fast gestures – hands shifting each other – technology testing itself? It glides, spinning around. An echo of ballroom, perhaps; but also a spinning wheel, a disk drive. What can this matter do, in an immaterial world? Complete a function? Execute a program? Glitch? What is the relation between these two figures? Lights shift, and flash. Equally unclear is the relation between ‘us, here’ and ‘them, there’ – is this space, this landscape, theirs or ours? The present and the future – which one has been transplanted into the other?
The work is fragmented; it feels long. But we’re learning from the future, after all, and learning is uncomfortable, exposing our ignorance and limitations. I spend most of the show enticed and bewildered, with no idea of where it’s going to go. Its boldness invited me to stick with it; and there’s a compositional sophistication, beyond the visual and kinetic richness, that sustained me through my uncertainty, and prevents me from settling into either boredom or frustration. I didn’t quite love this performance while watching it, but it kept me wanting to plunge further and further. My eyes grew tired, my body leaned forward. I was, and still am, hungry for what it offers. It’s like surfing the internet, perhaps; perpetually holding and witholding satisfaction in the next click; it submerges you in increasing complexity, as you forget whatever it was you came here to discover, or do.
So how do we read this future? Can we learn anything from it? The work opens with a strange and powerfully affecting image: Marojevic, naked, distant from us, distant from anything, standing about, nothing to do – framed by the words “I was a body”. It feels like a haunting that has taken hold of Sadler – a mourning for a future death – the absence, departure or removal of the body – a body made obsolete by technology. A body full of sensations, instabilities and excesses; that drive and complicate the fields of choreography and dance. If this image is a kind of melancholic indulgence on Sadler’s part, it is the only one she permits herself; everything that follows in this performance plunges fully into the fearful threat of the future. What makes this work rich is how it goes beyond banal claims of technology’s threat to an innate and bodily human-ness? It fully and unreservedly embraces this future, and in doing so gives itself access to its spectacular and beautiful complexities.
At its height, Learning from the Future feels like a thrilling and urgent ritual, where we dress up as our monsters, where we wear them intimately, and perhaps even begin to love them, rehearsing them in order to encounter them before their arrival. A strange ritual of fear, and of learning to live with the unknown.
Learning from the Future was at Nottingham Contemporary on September 29th. For more details, including future dates, click here.