Friday, July 1, 2022

Dance Review: Smoke and Mirrors and Magic Tricks, Chunky Move’s Mortal Engine at BAM

Mortal Engine, Chunky Move Had I seen Chunky Move’s special effect heavy Mortal Engine in a hotel in Vegas, I would have been blown away by its artistic integrity. At BAM, I’m blown away by the way that its artistic integrity is lost in an extravaganza of moving projections, laser lights and fog; smoke and mirrors so to speak.

The piece is built around technology that uses an infrared camera to locate bodies in the space, allowing projections and sound to follow and respond to their movement. The stage, and surface for projection, is a stark white slanted platform. Following a spectacle of geometric projections and electronic sound, a human form magically appears on the surface, a soft fleshy being left in the aftermath of a light and sound attack. Her sinuous articulate body flows though beautifully strange animalistic contortions.

On a whole, the performance of the dancers is impeccable, but often lost in the projections. I feel very little empathy for the human characters in the piece. More so, I feel empathy for the dancers since their brilliant and physically laborious performance isn’t always visible.

Only the FIERCE Dancers Apply!A blob of bodies emerges from the horizon at the top of the platform and slithers its way down the slope. Projections cast a dark cloud, a murky growth which distorts the human form. The eye confuses limbs with torsos and human with monster. The monster blob repeatedly engulfs the solo performer and she proceeds to escape it. An underlying theme of good and evil, darkness and light, pretends to give the piece depth and a purpose beyond spectacle. Regardless, isolated, these disturbing moments of looming darkness offer an abstract emotional power.

A brilliant effect of overstimulation is the acute focus which lingers in its absence. Silence is amplified and the tenderness of the human hand is exaggerated. One of these moments leaves a man and a woman holding hands, resting against a vertical wall as if lying in bed. Their shifts in position cause a sloshy sound, and produce a black visible aura which leaves trailing ephemeral stains. This is powerful, but the sad beauty of the scene is eventually undermined by its monotony as its predictable pattern carries on.

It’s ironic given the visceral quality of the dancers that my most visceral connection to the piece involves no dancers, only light and sound, the very thing that I’m criticizing.

Approaching the end, the entire stage and house is filled with smoke. A mesmerizing display of green laser light emanates from the distance and extends out into the air above our heads. Moving walls of light leave psychedelic swirling traces in the fog, and all of this massive visual stimulation corresponds directly to intense electronic sound at a volume which vibrates in my chest. It’s a physical experience which evokes a very human emotional response to something which is not at all human.

My tone is shifting and I’m no longer disappointed with fact that this is all spectacle. Instead, I’m completely invested in the spectacle. The question arises; where does art stop and entertainment begin? And why does it matter if I’m affected by the experience? Once I let go of my expectation placed on BAM events, and view it for what it is. I admit, it’s pretty awesome.

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Official Dance Review by Julie Fotheringham
Performance: Chunky Move, Mortal Engine 
Venue: Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City
Date: Dec. 10, 2009

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