Yesterday Tomorrow, a response
Three singers sit on three couches; they each occupy their own. They wear nice fitting clothing in gentle colors and matching mukluks, the kind you can order on Amazon. The couches are in sad shades of brown, and I realize for the first time how sad a couch can be. The three couch/performer teams seem to float, like magic carpets, waiting for directions. They are enclosed by four hanging rectangular projection screens illuminated with simple sheet music in three parts and a traveling orange placeholder. Upstage there is a golden buddha, the significance of which I can’t figure out.
The singers take a breath, eyes fixed on the starting point, and once it budges from its resting place they begin to sing, in perfect unison. They sing Yesterday by the Beatles and I am reminded of the melancholia associated with hearing this song for the first time as a teenager is California. But the singers are erect and their diction is erudite. The rock n’ roll soul is absent. The performers are following an assignment; this is a task based performance. With each progressing repetition of the song, each individual singing part is altered, straying from the ultra familiar original, dictated by an unknowable algorithm that transmutes the music slowly away from Paul McCartney into an alien musical space.
As the music expands and the singers obey each melodic deviation, other actions are demanded of them by the all powerful thin orange line. Variations in shading prompt the singers to shift on their couches or adjust their props (a laptop, mug, or throw pillow), change their facing, or physically move through the space. By the end of the piece, the three have landed on the same couch together, and facing out, they persevere through the foggy landscape of notes, and emerge again in perfect unison singing the classic song of youthful hope, Tomorrow from Annie.
Despite the calculative route through which this final moment is reached, the soaring notes and uplifting lyrics shot me with a dose of the “in love” feeling: a sort of heart swelling hopelessly disconnected from the mind. I was seeing this show with two friends. Friend on the right saw the piece as a metaphor for depression: an individual faced with the challenge of getting off their couch to face the world. Friend on the left thought the piece was obviously about the impossibility and inevitability of change: we can be headed in a direction but the multiple minute difficulties in getting there make it almost impossible to move forward. The delightfully dumb structure that Annie Dorsen has established, three singers guided by an algorithm singing from Yesterday to Tomorrow, has the capacity to hold all of the narratives we need to project on it with zero compromise.
In this piece, humans are guided by an algorithm. The screens tell them what to do. It made me think about the ever present and increasingly discussed tension between technology and humanity. I thought about robots trying to approximate human emotion while watching the performers complete their tasks with robot-like precision, waiting for the thrill of catching them in a mistake: lagging one one hundredth of a second behind, or being surprised by a mandated move as they shift their weight awkwardly on the couches struggling to keep their left mukluk on. Humans and their errors made such things as the song Yesterday by the Beatles and the unflappable fable of little orphan Annie. I would argue that, Annie Dorsen, though potentially the world’s pioneer of Computer Theater, is celebrating humanity in Yesterday Tomorrow.