The Science of Communication: “WHaLE OPTICS” and “Red Rovers” at Philly Live Arts

Headlong Dance Theater's "Red Rovers"

Cybernetic models of communication posit that all information exchange is fraught to a certain degree with glitches, bugs, and processing malfunctions. At this year’s Live Arts Festival, WHaLE OPTICS and Red Rovers explore what happens when communicative channels are disrupted and signals distorted before reaching receivers.

In WHaLE OPTICS, director Thaddeus Phillips and Lucidity Suitcase International structure their investigation as a technologized “modern Moby Dick adventure” in three acts, punctuated by screened Carl Sagan micro-lectures and a love story involving an information systems technician who mimes cetacean mating habits in the throes of passion. Here, Captain Ahab is figured as a composer conducting research on the sonic vibrations of humpback whales whose subjects continually elude him because their migration trajectory has been unsettled by global telecommunications networks.  They give chase and he follows in pursuit, sailing across several of the seven seas. He is foiled along the way by his inability to effectively interact with his Spanish-speaking shipmates, a fact which results in a series of somewhat comedic mistranslations.

Throughout this seafaring journey, the lavish techno-landscape of the stage shifts in correspondence with changing geographical coordinates. Multiple mesmeric visual environments are generated within a confined space, with the audience seated onstage and immersed in the action.  Reading lamps suspended midair mark scenes at the Public Library, a Dan Flavin-esque lighting installation flickers on and off at a New Jersey fiber optics station, and starscapes flash across television monitors.

Ambitious in scope and meticulously researched, WHaLE OPTICS is wildly successful when it functions as a curated data transmission. Its first act in particular is replete with library browsing, archival material, screened lectures, and textual paraphrases offered by Hypatia the librarian. Admittedly, there are few things I prefer to the spectacle of performed scholarship.

The show is approximately three hours long in its entirety, including intermission. As it wears on, the script becomes more heavily reliant on the familiar comedic misadventures of a stranger in a strange land, and certain expository scenes come across as excess. These are nevertheless interspersed between scenes of intense poignancy. One such moment involves the telecommunications technician explaining how the flow of billions of bits of information might one day shut down the internet. Put differently, the increased circulation of information may become a self-terminating process that ultimately effectuates its own demise.

We transitioned from this nautical expedition to a staged symposium on interplanetary exploration in Red Rovers, a pitch-perfect collaboration between Headlong Dance Theater and visual artist Chris Doyle. Its scenario positions the spectator as a Jet Propulsion Laboratories employee attending a professional conference on the rover mission to Mars.  Participatory from the first, the ushers instructed us to register and select nametags corresponding to actual JPL scientists before entering the auditorium.

After a witty motivational address from our Session Leader illustrated with Powerpoint slides, we were divided into Affinity Groups based on our preference for iPhones vs. swimming and subsequently assigned a timed collective exercise. What followed was a micro-study in group interaction, with the commotion of indecipherably dissonant voices escalating in volume the closer we inched to our time limit.

The beautifully disjunctive narrative of Red Rovers concerns a romance gone south between the conference session leaders, Jeffrey Merbold and Clementine Nardello (impeccably played by David Disbrow and Christina Zani). Videoconferences between the two are plagued by feedback delays and their images distorted by pixilation. The impotency of their communication attempts is articulated through robotic rovers aimlessly trekking across the stage, a Ziggy Stardust soundtrack, Gary Cooper mutely romancing a silent film starlet, and the haunting sight of a lone astronaut dancing en pointe in a space suit. Stellar visual design shuttles us seamlessly back and forth from the electronoise of bitstreams and datascapes to the disco-lit cosmos. END OF DATA TRANSMISSION flashes across the projection screen.

Much like the conference couple on the outs, the rover anthropomorphically referred to as Spirit is no longer capable of relaying messages. Jeffrey muses, “Spirit. I am really going to miss her. She just gave us so much data.” Red Rovers offers a gorgeously wrought view of communication as so many lost broadcasts from Ground Control to Major Tom and malfunctioning circuits floating in a sea of space oddities.

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