As we enter the Platform Theatre, the white-clad dancers are already warming up. The stage is bare apart from four mesh screens and a row of eight lights on the floor. These lights, like the dancers, are already in action, twisting, turning and dipping, their searchlights probing and exploring the heights of the stage and glinting on the metallic gantries above. The interaction between the dancers and these lights is fundamental to Alexander Whitley’s Pattern Recognition. Digital artist Memo Akten has collaborated with Whitley to build responsiveness to human motion into the lighting controls so that the performers’ movements influence the direction of the beams. The dancers here are Whitley himself and Natalie Allen. The soundtrack comes from Scanner and Oliver Coates.
It’s a well-structured and paced piece, a successful integration of its different components, at times quite literally dazzling when the audience is caught in the beams. In an hour it explores both the capabilities of the technology, and in a cool and understated way the changes in the relationship between a man and a woman. There are some memorable and beautiful images, in particular Natalie Allen at the close plucking rays of light as if they are strings of a giant instrument.
The dancers reposition the lights around the performance area for different effects. With the lights behind them sometimes the mesh screens are positioned at the front of the stage so that we see both the dancers themselves and their larger shadows on the screens. (This effect may vary depending on where you are in the auditorium, working less well at the sides). Sometimes the light levels are very low indeed and just pick out the bare outlines of the performers. At other times the beams of light cross over the performers and slowly lower as if to catch Whitley under a net and push him downwards. He is fond of floor based movement and both of them wriggle along under low sweeping lights. The performers limbs seldom cut through the shafts of light but when they do the flash of brilliant white is startling.
The lights continue to turn, to nod and bob even when not shining. The effect can be almost sinister as if these tireless creatures are constantly observing, even when you might think them inactive.
Allen and Whitley appear separately to begin with, negotiating the space between them uneasily. It is a while before they touch. A gentle, nuzzling duet without any lighting effects shows them leaning together, slowly transferring weight. There is no overt narrative emotionalism here but overall it’s a thoughtful and considered view of the stages of a relationship.
Later the dancers are separated by the mesh screens. Allen seems to console herself by toying with one of the lights, pulling it close to her, playing with its beam and pulling it around on its cable as if it might be a favourite pet. The final section sees her alone on stage with the lights now restored to their original position in a line, and it is here that the reaction to the dancer’s movement is most explicit. Here Allen toys and plays with the rays of light. The movement of her arms raises them as if blown by the wind, she calls them back to her and steps among them, luxuriating in the beams.
Whitley has been interested for some time in reactive technology. His earlier The Measures Taken, a collaboration with the Marshmallow Laser Feast group, then including Memo Akten, also featured lighting derived from human movement. Here in Pattern Recognition the technology comes from computer gaming with devices at the front of the stage sense the dancers’ movements. The work seems to be a step forward in terms of integrating the technology with a warmer, more human element.
Pattern Recognition returns for a tour of the UK this autumn and may well evolve further. The technology used means that each performance may produce different effects. It did seem that at this one the lights themselves took a bow, dipping and nodding towards us in the audience at the close.