In the tech jungle with Jamie Jewett’s “Zoologic”
Providence choreographer Jamie Jewett’s latest work, Zoologic, seen at Rhode Island School of Design’s Auditorium in April, is a highly accomplished synthesis of dance and technology. In this unique collision of media and performance, all of the component pieces of text, movement, interactive technology, video, sound, costume and lights feed the totality of a statement about a kind of contemporary life inside the captivity of constant surveillance. Jewett, listed in the program as Artistic Director, has assembled an all-star ensemble of creative voices that elevate his company Lostwax to one that deserves more than regional recognition. Among the field of arts and technology practitioners, Jewett manages to wrangle the specialized and mechanical requirements of execution into his sophisticated artistic vision, achieving a poignant and relevant work of contemporary dance performance.
Zoologic developed from a short story of the same name by author Thalia Field (included in her 2004 Incanate: Story Material). Field is considered one of America’s foremost experimental writers, and while Jewett has worked with her text before, he and dramaturg/assistant director Elise Morrison culled through her dense material to arrive at a sensitive peeling away that allowed the audience follow a poetic narrative of connection and loss. Centered around “father of zoo biology” Heini Hediger, played with elegance by NY-to-RI transplant Sydney Skybetter, we see him negotiate how his scientific observations about domesticating wild animals serve and, eventually, fail a budding relationship with Tessela, performed with caged grace by Shura Baryshnikov (yes, she’s “that guy’s” daughter). Hediger’s theories of “flight distance” and “critical distance” – the distances at which another animal or human will trigger that animal to run or fly away or attack – become resonant metaphors for the two characters’ attempts at the difficult task of sharing space. The work shifts between Hediger observing surreal animals in the wild, also danced by Ali Kenner Brodsky, Katie McNamara and Skybetter and Baryshikov, and 4 domestic scenes in a sterile white box. A terrific mediated moment occurs when the two dancers first meet and never touch, but a video, edited by Aaron Henderson, presents their shadows in various embraces revealing the subtle energies that dance between those newly met. The visual landscapes are bolstered by Heidi Henderson’s bright and vivid costumes. Inspired by fantastical Oaxacan animal carvings, the animal/dancers are wrapped in magical, mythical, nouveau cirque versus wild things garments that allow them a precocious and precious beauty.
While it often felt like we were in the jungle of technology, we were also allowed to get deeply into the minutiae of a budding relationship between awkward social beings. Baryshnikov’s small movements of fixing her skirt, turning on the sink, or looking in mirror brought us to an interior space for the courtship. The sectionalized set (with the sparse room space on the right) and Stephen Petrill’s lighting design, combined with the movement made for easy shifts from external to internal. So, even the small space felt expansive and inclusive without much decoration. The movement and narrative were so strong it felt like we were inside a city apartment. I felt familiar, not so much in the romance arc, but as someone who has travelled and felt alone in cities around the world. Seeking connection, but wary of it too. The work carried that kind of loneliness but in a very beautiful way.
The intimate story resides in a global conversation about how tracking, surveillance, and technology serve to bring together and separate humans, both from one another and from the other species on the planet. We first encounter Hediger after watching thousands of photos pulled from Match.com fly by before freezing on his image. Composer R. Luke DuBois weaves sounds of endangered species as collected over the last 100 years by the Cornell Lab of Ornothology into a sonic tapestry of loss that reaches me on a level so much deeper and wider than our myopic, quotidian woes. And then, of course, there are the drones. Drones in this work are multidimensional parts of the unfolding visual and narrative trajectories. They serve as lighting instruments, closed circuit cameras and characters – one plays a wasp and another plays a fly. They observe and are observed. They are ominous and silly, extraordinary and commonplace, alien and utilitarian.
In the end, the multidimensional relationship and usage of the drones in the work mirrors the depth and complexity to the entire artistic undertaking. The physical relationships are sophisticated. The movement material, collaboratively devised by Jewett with his choreographically experienced dancers, is intricate and beautifully crafted. The text, delivered throughout in voiceovers, requires concentrated attention, but doesn’t overpower the visual field. There is a legibility that is achieved by gathering all of the elements together within Jewett’s acculturated and evocative vision.