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Only Connect 

A dance theater piece asks, If it's so hard to bond with those closest to us, how do we expect to contact aliens?

Wednesday, Jul 26 2006
For almost half a century, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence research movement has spent millions of dollars and at least as many hours ransacking the night sky in search of aliens. Given that the Milky Way is 100,000 light-years across and contains approximately a hundred billion stars, the chances of exchanging handshakes (or antenna-rubs) with a little green man are unlikely, to say the least. But no matter; the search goes on. The Berkeley-based SETI@home project — a scientific experiment that harnesses the power of Internet-connected computers to analyze radio telescope data — is testimony to our obsession with assuaging our loneliness as a planet: Today, more than five million computer users in over 200 countries have collectively contributed 19-plus billion hours of computer-processing time in an effort to make new friends.

Erika Shuch Performance Project's latest, and very beautiful, movement theater piece, ORBIT (Notes From the Edge of Forever), is all about humanity's frenzied and largely frustrated attempts to forge connections with worlds beyond our own. Combining live and recorded music, choreography, spoken text, video projections, televised images, and an interactive set, ORBIT playfully explores the notion that it won't be too long before we'll be eating breakfast on Pluto and sending our kids out to play with the Martian offspring next door.

The hope of achieving that much connection with outer space is, of course, nothing without science. In ORBIT, references to scientific principles — from the mnemonic used by astronomers to remember the arrangement of stars according to particular spectral characteristics to the RGB color model — are batted about on stage like the pixilated ball in a game of Pong. But like this early computer game, most of the show's scientific content is goofily low-tech. When principle performers Danny Wolohan and Erika Chong Shuch (who also directs and choreographs) move with "zero gravity" in space, they can only do so by being physically picked up and carried around by other ensemble members. Static noise, old-fashioned table lamps, and grainy "ghosted" television screens (suggested by the doubling of video-recorded images of actors alongside their live selves) similarly speak of the limitations of science.

Despite the slick execution of the production's complex sound, light, and video cues, the work more powerfully conceives of science as the basis for fantasy than as a means of contact with the unknown. Towers made up of old books, outmoded TVs, and the aforementioned table lamps dangle and sway across the performance space like tentacled life-forms in a science-fiction film; the show also recalls famous scenes from Ridley Scott's 1979 movie, Alien, and Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Dressed in what appear to be pale-blue postal-worker uniforms and operating under the influence of a mysterious and powerful being portrayed by Melanie Elms, ensemble members Kieran Chavez, Joseph Estlack, Courtney Moreno, and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart (as bizarre space-invader messengers) abduct hapless earthlings Wolohan and Shuch and pop up uninvited in dreams.

If ORBIT delights in showing us how wildly off-target our expectations of achieving connectivity with other parts of the cosmos might be, the production takes a similar view of our attempts to forge bonds with the people closest to us. As the pair of lovers at the center of the work, Wolohan and Shuch are not so much star-crossed as they are at cross purposes. Shuch's sticky, sensual choreography demonstrates the sexual charge and intimacy between the two characters, though a typical conversation goes something like this:

Wolohan: If you had to choose between a firefly and a lighthouse, which would you pick? If you had to choose between smoke signals and Morse code, which would you send?

Shuch: Forever?

Wolohan: Forever.

Shuch: Morse code. You?

Wolohan: I'd pick a lighthouse.

As the show's title suggests, the pair spend most of their time orbiting around each other, failing to connect. Moments of togetherness are as rare as sighting a passing comet with the naked eye. When they do occur, they're stunning for their emotional and aesthetic beauty — yet, poignantly, always a step removed from reality. In one such scene, for instance, a miniature stick-puppet Wolohan battles ocean waves and hostile sea creatures (animated by the alien postal workers) on a small paper boat before landing safely at Shuch's feet. Crucially, in Wolohan's fantasy, his girl is dressed as a lighthouse. In another, Shuch, videotaped by Wolohan, leads her lover backstage. By means of a live video feed, we watch the couple navigating the corridors behind the performance area. She opens the stage door and steps outside into a fantasy landscape. The concrete sidewalks of the Mission District are nowhere in sight; the same goes for empirical scientific reality.

From the "stiff twin compasses" orbiting around one another in metaphysical poet John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" (from 1611) to local multidisciplinary performance group Capacitor's astronomy-inspired Within Outer Spaces (2003), artists have long explored the relationship between cosmological phenomena and human relationships. What makes ORBIT interesting is the way those connections are found wanting. The universe might be flashing lights at us with the compulsion of slot machines in a Las Vegas casino, but as SETI has so far shown, we're just not looking in the right places — or we simply don't have the power to see. Our relationship with the solar system as depicted in ORBIT is a bit like failing to exchange phone numbers with the cute boy on the bus: It's a missed-connections column of pan-galactic proportions. For a company and a venue whose combined mission statement is all about finding ways to connect, that's quite a bold statement to make.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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