Janine Harrington’s Screensaver Series is a piece of ambient dance – like a screensaver, it moves (laterally, not going anywhere in particular) at its algorithmically determined pace, quite undemanding of one’s attention. But if you do give it your attention, it’s mesmerising.
Five dancers sit or kneel in a line along the y axis of the performance space, one in front of the other. Viewed front on, as limbs extend, bloom and unfurl from this 2D image with perfect symmetry, and the dancers in their loudly patterned clothes shift positions via slow motion leapfrog, it’s a challenge to tell whose arms are whose or where exactly they’re coming from — they’re one five-headed entity. Movements are steady and slow, stochastically peppered by jagged accents. More than anything, it’s extremely satisfying — flurries of movement trigger an ASMR-like hormonal response.
When the camera shifts angle to a side-on view, as an audience member would move around the space in a live context, the change of perspective reveals the difficulty of their task; the concentration involved in negotiating a partly improvised performance, and the physical strain of keeping balance, maintaining symmetry. It’s not so easy after all for people to embody a computer programme. At this angle, images of care-taking crystallise. It’s a choreography of touch, leaning, collaboration, taking someone else’s weight, adaptation and flexibility. The depthless single entity now looks more like an ecosystem.
The success of this piece is in its openness, I think. Its aesthetic vibrancy and its commitment to a single formal idea whose limitations are fully and playfully exploited prove to be stable-enough hooks that it’s accessible as a kind of ‘pure’ dance. No meaning outside its shapes and colours need be attached necessarily, and what else is a screensaver for but biding time? But gently, it suggests a contextual framework informed by neurodivergence, different ways of processing information and pattern recognition. Its openness is almost its raison d’être: we often understand accessibility in performance in terms of practical adjustments to space, environment and framing, but Screensaver Series extends this thinking towards an idea of accessibility at a dramaturgical level.
I think about this notion of accessibility as I watch Seeta Patel’s choreography to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I’ve often felt at odds with the pervasive assumption that work along experimental or conceptual lines is less approachable than traditional or narrative forms. On a personal level, I often find the opposite to be true; I struggle with classical forms like ballet, feeling like I lack the tools with which to translate certain gestural codes and formal conventions. It feels an altogether more opaque world to me.
There is something of this, certainly, in The Rite of Spring. Set to a canonical work of Western classical music and danced in the classical Indian style of Bharatanatyam, it is concerned foremost with form and technique, and in the marriage of two historied and culturally distinct art forms. As it turns out, Stravinsky’s angular and accented score proves a harmonious fit with the precise, geometric vigour of Bharatanatyam. In an artist talk, Patel mentions the challenge of translating Stravinsky’s (frequently changing) time signatures into measures that make sense for Bharatanatyam — a point that speaks to the piece’s experiment in cultural contrast on the micro-level of technicality. The realisation that the dancers are working to a different rhythmic system to the music suddenly changes my relationship with the piece. It suggests to me the heart of this piece lies in its workings — a process and an understanding of technicality that I am not quite privy to. Just as the change of camera angle reveals the dancers’ labour in Screensaver Series, I longed for the tensions between the Stravinsky score and the dance to be more visible, to see the scribblings in the margins, to be guided in some way through the principles and strategies at play. But then it’s bad criticism, perhaps, to ask a piece to do something it’s not trying to do.
I realise someway in that perhaps I ought to stop worrying and simply surrender to the piece’s immediate sensorial qualities; there is pleasure, still, to be had in skating on the surface. And it’s an undoubtedly lush surface — there is huge energy to the choreography, as the dancers flit across the stage in counterpointed groups, split apart and reform in symmetrical, ritualistic arrangements. Warren Letton’s lighting is colour-rich, deepening to an all encompassing, nauseous red for the second half’s ritual sacrifice of the Chosen One. Newly anointed and enrobed, the Chosen One stands like a maypole as the dancers pick up entrail-like sinews of cloth extruding from the robe and dance around him — a striking image, beautiful and nightmarish at the same time.
Taking pleasure in these images, I should have realised, is quite the same way of approaching a work as I would have been comfortable with in the case of a more conceptually self-contained work such as Harrington’s — why not one coming from classical lineages? Aesthetically, they may be worlds apart, but these two works share a common interests in patterns, geometry and form. They produce meaning in different ways, but they hold at their centres the primary, sensual impact of images — the shapes, speeds, colours and contours of bodies in motion.
The public programme of Horizon ran from 23rd-27th August. More info here.