Course of Empire and Synchronous Objects: Live review

Still form annotated video illustrating allignments, the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time.Credit: Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company

Still form annotated video illustrating allignments, the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time.Credit: Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company

Still from Synchronous Objects, Courtesy of the Synchronous Objects Project, Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company.

Serendipity brought two dance events into dialogue over the weekend: Course of Empire—An Excavation on Building a City of the Interior premiered November 11 for a two-weekend run at the Viaduct Theatre, and Norah Zuniga Shaw led a guided tour of Synchronous Objects as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival’s 2010 programming, themed “The Body.” Although the two projects—one the culmination of a year-long process at Chicago’s Breakbone DanceCo., the other an interactive website developed in Germany and at Ohio State University—couldn’t have less in common, they form an interesting pair.

Toward the end of Doug Liman’s Plame-Wilson film, Fair Game, a series of scenes reiterate that a building is just a building and that, ultimately, the White House and Capitol are no more than the sum of their inhabitants and employees. A similar realignment runs through Course of Empire, wherein three women (choreographer Atalee Judy, with dancers Anita Fillmore and Mindy Meyers) interact mostly in virtual spaces. Three-channel video projected on movable panels makes architecture illusory and bodies monumental. A Taj Mahal and leaning tower of Pisa are built out of small wooden blocks, then toppled by the giantesses.

Synchronous Objects is the inverse. Data that define a work of choreography (William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced) are separated from the bodies that perform it, and fed into an array of 19 “objects” for experiencing that data, from a field of clock-like dials that mark degrees of unison and coincidence to arching, torqued traceforms that capture the sweep of arms and legs. It’s architecture that’s monumental here. Bodies are not only illusory, but absent. (It’s intended both to explain Forsythe’s complex choreographic principles as an exercise in audience development, and “inspire choreographic thinking” about non-dance situations, from group dynamics to graphic design.)

These works, though opposed, aren’t incompatible. More than ever before, ideas, systems and representations are our reality just as much as blood and bones, brick and mortar, muscles and guts.

Mapping Judy’s Empire the way Shaw and the rest of the Synchronous team mapped One Flat Thing wouldn’t produce the latter’s aesthetically attractive, purely geometric forms. Judy’s choreography for Empire—originally for four dancers, hastily made a trio due to the last-minute departure of Suzanne Dado for personal reasons—is rough-hewn and, in many cases, completely task-based. Paths Fillmore, Judy and Meyers’s limbs take don’t describe pure, smooth surfaces, and they create real, concrete structures, albeit only as much as their immediate environment demands. Remember the scene in Inception where Paris is re-created and manipulated around DiCaprio and Page as they move through it? We watch the dancers build a low wall so one can walk its edge like a high wire, or two stabilize a steel truss so the third can scale it, wearing a helmet-mounted video camera, and build another toy block structure (a curved arcade) on top. As soon as they’re used, these constructions are dismantled.

Architecture is more than just shapes and volumes. Rhythm plays a central role; as Goethe said, it’s “frozen music.” This is Judy’s central omission: Empire is doggedly arrhythmic, oddly paced and plodding, like Barney’s Cremaster films (the exception being a lovely, lyrical solo by Fillmore stripped of her goggles, jackboots and leather cap to a short-legged Union suit replete with butt flap). But this isn’t necessarily an accident. Breakbone has long been one of Chicago’s most unconventional dance companies, and all of Judy’s work I know demands effort and persistence on the part of the viewer. Compared to One Flat Thing, which pulsates with dynamic energy, Empire feels abandoned, gutted. The projected-video settings underline this mood: While during the Consummation/Manifest section, we tour the triumph of Kahn’s Phillips-Exeter Library and another grand site, Rochester’s Powers Building, the abandoned Buffalo train station and debris-strewn Gary church interiors seen later are obviously closer to Judy’s comfort zone.

(Empire is in five sections mirroring the five paintings comprising Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire, completed in the mid-1830s. Judy makes telling departures: Cole names his fourth installment Destruction, for example, while Judy’s is titled Inevitable Destruction.)

One exposes the architecture of a dance, the other dances the destruction of architectures. It may seem more absurd to reduce the movement of thinking, feeling bodies to a manipulable data set than to interpret the rise and fall of civilization as a trio performed to, among other sources, Einstürzende Neubauten and This Mortal Coil. Both Empire and Objects are proudly grandiose; to my taste, it’s Objects that communicates more about the world outside itself. Others might, of course, find it cold, analytical and opaque, just as I find Empire belabored, sealed and obtuse. We all see in different ways.

Course of Empire—An Excavation on Building a City of the Interior continues through November 20 at the Viaduct Theatre. Synchronous Objects is online at

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)