Charles Atlas – not to be confused with the pioneering American body-builder – is a pioneering America filmmaker and visual artist, perhaps best known for his brief but productive collaborations with Merce Cunningham in the late 1970s and early 80s, during which time they made around ten short dance films together. Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener were both members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the later years of Cunningham’s life and until the company’s closure at the end of 2011. Mitchell is a Cunningham Trustee and licensed stager of the Cunningham repertory. So, this event – staged as part of the Barbican’s Life Rewired season – comes with some considerable pedigree as we rapidly approach the centenary of Cunningham’s birth next month, on 16 April.

Silan Riener and ensemblein Tesseract
© Ray Felix EMPAC

Tesseract is a mixed media performance consisting of a first part that is 3D recorded film and a second part that is live performance filmed in real time and projected onto a scrim (helpfully loaned by the Juilliard) as the live performance took place behind the sheer curtain. That these were two parts, not acts, is emphasised by having different geometry (a square and a circle) added to Tesseract, thereby subtly distinguishing the titles. It promised to be both innovative and interesting.

With all this in mind, it is a pity to report that Tesseract was generally disappointing. The reason for the qualification is that the choreography in the second part and the sometimes intriguing mix of film and live performance elevated this from the unrelentingly dull and dated first part.

The 3D effects were so poor that I found myself testing the loaned glasses periodically to see if they were working. Images that appeared to be in the background were suddenly foregrounded in a manner that appeared artificial. The film contained numerous sections that were of no obvious relevance to one another: dancers in white clothing with black square patches on their costumes and painted around their eyes seemed to perform in a children’s playground; then they appear against a cosmic background; and lolling around in a desert landscape with a strange sci-fi building in the distance and a potted plant that looked amateurishly superimposed. Only the last sequence of two guys dancing around in a room full of fabric and rope hanging from above had a notable 3D effect (and I stopped fiddling with my glasses).

R. Mitchell, C. Kresge, M. Toogood, S. Riener, K. Foote, D. R. Botana
© Mick Bello EMPAC

The origins of Tesseract appear to lay in a 1941 novella, He Built a Crooked House by Robert A. Heinlein; about an architect who builds a strange house based on a four-dimensional cube (a tesseract) but there is no way that anyone could possibly know that without reading the programme. And, even then, we will have to just take the author’s word for it! The film has a vintage 60s feel, in places like a cheap American B movie (especially the disorientating desert landscape scene). But, frankly, it was boring.

Things improved considerably in the second act where Ryan Thomas Jenkins, a live-action cameraman (or Steadicam operator to give him his formal title) joined the six dancers on stage (four of whom had also appeared in the film, including the two choreographers, alongside three others). Multi-tasking Mitchell and Riener also designed the costumes for both parts and the translucent trouser suits for the dancers were interesting. Best of all was the open articulation of the dancers’ bodies, with extensions out into the feet and fingers; curves of the body emphasised in stretching and bending; and when unity was required the six dancers moved with excellent precision, all of which had an obvious Cunningham feel.  One had to sometimes stop and think that there were only six dancers since the Steadicam often added many more to the process through the projections onto the scrim. Sometimes, aided by those billowing, diaphanous costumes, there seemed like a whole corps de ballet. The visual impact of this interaction between live action and contemporaneous film was often intriguing.

With Atlas’s contribution, this was a multimedia work as much of visual art as it was dance but unfortunately it was one of such unevenness that the overall impact was lessened. The tickets – as so often at the Barbican Theatre where, as those doors close in unison, you feel locked in forever – proclaim that latecomers may not be admitted. Missing the first act would be no hardship.