3rd Law Dance/Theater’s “Singularity”
A review by Gwen Gray
To hear it told by 3rd Law Dance/Theater’s artistic co-directors Katie Elliott and Paul Fowler, the company’s latest production, “Singularity,” was inherited. That’s because 3rd Law’s late cofounder Jimmy LaVita had already begun to assemble the research for the troupe’s next creation before his death — examining artificial intelligence (AI) and what happens when it surpasses human capacity, a moment known as “technological singularity.” Elliott and Fowler were able to continue to build upon LaVita’s ideas thanks to the literal bookmarks he left in texts he’d been studying by computer scientists Jaron Lanier, Ray Kurzweil and philosopher Jean Baudrillard, among others.
At the crux of LaVita, Elliott and Fowler’s musings on the topic of AI was a crucial question: “What in our humanness do we lose if we release our power and control to something that isn’t human,” says Fowler, a past 3rd Law collaborator who has joined Elliott as artistic co-director this time around
Sound futuristic? Not really. Elliott and Fowler point out that it’s already happening. Software algorithms already shape our daily lives, serving us customized information and advertising based on our online behaviors, and millions of data points are being collected for individuals constantly.
The pair constructed the program in three movements. The first depicts a “worst-case scenario” of artificial intelligence overtaking our lives. The second explores how we interact with AI and technology now. And the third imagines a future world where technology can help us solve critical problems and free us to become the creative beings we crave to be.
The result of Elliott and Fowler’s new co-directing arrangement (Fowler has collaborated with the company since 2016’s production “Elision”), was that all the delights of a 3rd Law show remain — the conceptual framework, intricate and transformative choreography, an otherworldly score, thought-provoking set projections — but the score and the choreography seem to work together better than ever.
That was by design.
Fowler and Elliott explained in an interview that they were working in tandem to create “Singularity,” with the music and choreography coming along at the same pace, over a number of months.
Elliott says, “What’s exciting is that Paul talks about voice and music in the same way I talk about dance.” This unique, collaborative approach turned out to be the show’s greatest success, treating the audience to two complete concerts — one choreographic and the other musical — working in complete harmony.
This was especially thrilling in the first section, which begins with the dancers moving in staggeringly robotic synchronization atop a grid of metal cubes, except for a single, isolated dancer draped in red. Fowler’s musical composition periodically converges in a great clap, just as the dancers slap their hands to their hearts in unison. A loud gasp is heard in the music, just as the dancers turn to the audience and forcefully exhale together. It all worked to drive home the threat of human homogenization as a result of being driven by a set of methodical, unnuanced algorithms.
Throughout the evening, the troupe continued to use the metal cubes, representing the technological framework of artificial intelligence, to illustrate the interactions between humans and AI, and this worked to great effect.
In the second section, which was devoted to exploring the intersection of humanity and artificial intelligence in today’s increasingly technology-driven world, we see more complexity. The dancers work together to stack the cubes, then disassemble and try again. They dance around them, over them, even into them — at times evoking a generation obsessed with fitting their lives into a feed of 612-by-612-pixel Instagram frames. Meanwhile, images of icebergs crumbling into the sea are among the videos projected on the stage’s backdrop.
Throughout this middle section, dancers are seen grappling with technology, perhaps most disturbingly when one dancer regards one of the cubes with suspicion and suddenly experiences her hands and arms trembling violently to the soundtrack of a furiously clicking keyboard. Later, a stream of dancers zip across the entire length of the stage, pushing their cubes in front of them with such velocity that the audience is left to ask, “Where are they (we?) going in such a hurry?”
The third act provides stark contrast: a scene set to the sounds of ocean waves under pale coral lights. The dancers are clothed in pale, flowing peach smocks. Their movements seemed pensive and careful, abandoning the frantic nature of the two earlier sections. This time, the cubes are neatly aligned to form a single-story square upstage, which serves as a platform for the dancers, holding up but never dictating their movements.
In their introduction to the evening’s performance, Elliott and Fowler spoke about exploring the “elegant dichotomies” unique to the human experience that perhaps AI cannot detect or comprehend — concepts such as fearful courage, vibrating stillness and controlled chaos. It is in this final piece that such seemingly paradoxical concepts were most visible. The dancers are clearly more than their data points. As they draw together and apart, lift each other up, rejoice and mourn, they simultaneously embody tragedy and beauty — that elegant dichotomy at the very core of our humanness.
Can we co-exist positively with technology in a way that allows us to live our best lives, while machines free us from the mundane? With “Singularity,” Elliott and Fowler have certainly left their audiences with a final afterimage of hope.
When to See Them Next
3rd Law Dance/Theater performance will be performing a revival of the company’s well-received “Obstinate Pearl” on April 5, 6 and 7, 2019 at the Dairy Arts Center.