Dance and digital technology in Alexander Whitley’s Pattern Recognition

Patrick Centre, Birmingham
November 4, 2016

David Mead

On the surface, Pattern Recognition is a 55-minute duet by Alexander Whitley. Only it’s a little more than that because dancers David Ledger and Julia Sanz Fernandez are joined by eight moving ‘Sharpy’ lights that use computer code created by digital artist Memo Akten that supposedly track, learn from and intelligently respond in real time from the two real dancers, and that are shifted around the stage by them. It’s all part of Whitley’s ongoing investigation into the use of digital technology and artificial intelligence in choreography of dance and digital technology.

There are times when the lights do indeed appear to respond to the couple, their beams most commonly creating a triangle of shafts of light above them. There’s also a smile-raising duet for Sanz Fernandez and one of the lights which nods and turns gently in response her movement like some mini R2-D2. One shouldn’t anthropomorphise, but it did look like a conversation one might have with someone, or more likely a pet dog. At other times the connection was hard to spot, though, and there were more than a few moments when the lights seemed to predict action rather than respond to it.

The lights are vaguely interesting but the start is one of the longest ten minutes or so I’ve witnessed in dance for a long time, the lights flashing and strobing non-stop to a repeated pulsing soundtrack courtesy of Scanner. It is literally painful. Later that frequently shine directly at the audience. I don’t think I have ever been forced to hold my hand in front of my face so often at a performance; and what is the point of making anyone in the audience do that?

The dance for the Ledger and Sanz Fernandez is far more appealing, not least because, and whisper this quietly, it is so very human. The couple appear to be in a relationship that is fast falling apart. Or maybe they are recalling one that already has given that the lights, apparently, are supposed to help reveal a growing “connection between man and machine amongst a fragmented world of recollection.” But I didn’t get that either.

What we do see for sure are a series of snapshots (continuity is a problem with the piece in general). One particularly gorgeous duet is loaded with juicy supports, transfers of weight, lifts and rolls, the couple hugging and then breaking apart time and again as if uncertain about their feelings for one another.

All in all Pattern Recognition is very thin fare. The concept is not without interest, but there’s certainly not enough here to sustain anything like its very long 55 minutes.