Same Same

Liane Burns and Charles Slender-White in “Platform.” Photo by Andrew Weeks

In 2015, Holly Herndon’s album Platform broke through the electronic music scene with the force of a meteorite. With sounds sourced from the internet, Platform questioned our relationship to the digital world, and challenged the common notion that digital tools separate more than they connect us. Looking at those devices through the lens of intimacy, Herndon revisited notions of community and togetherness: “I’m magnifying intimate moments, mundane moments, from a concert, from a performance (…) to create a hyperintimate experience. Instead of a mediated experience causing a barrier — which it does for some people — it’s actually creating more intimacy than would normally be possible,” Herndon stated in an article about her work. The making of the album was also an example of globalized conversations: Herndon reached out to a variety of thinkers, both national and international, such as the German economist Hannes Grassegger who investigates the economy of personal data or UK theorist Suhail Malik whose work criticizes contemporary art structures.

Herndon’s album served as the soundtrack and springboard for Liane Burns and Charles Slender-White’s new piece Platform, which premieres at the Walking Distance Dance Festival. In her album, Herndon addresses many contemporary issues, including digital surveillance. But what stuck for Burns and Slender-White was the idea of sameness, which they explore by looking at and deconstructing unison. Burns and Slender-White spent the first 6 months talking about the piece, before getting into the studio. Part of the work developed during a 5-week residency in Bulgaria that allowed for total immersion as they got to spend 5 to 7 hours in the studio every day. Both artists speak about the luxury of a long gestation process than allowed for “going deeper” –one question leading to the next- rather than constantly having to problem-solve because of the pressure of an imminent deadline. This longer process also allowed for the piece to be shaped by the unfolding of life, the recent political transition influencing the direction of the piece quite a bit.

Burns and Slender-White have a long collaborative history– Burns has been dancing with Slender-White’s company FACT/SF for five seasons- but are co-authoring a work for the first time. “When we started working on Platform, we were also working on a piece with the company, so it was interesting to live in both worlds and go from dancer/collaborator to choreographer/collaborator at exactly the same time,” Burns explained in a conversation at the end of April. “The work is a reflection of both of us.” For Slender-White, letting go of the control that he normally relies on as the director of his company was challenging: “I was a bit nervous that I would have a hard time letting go of power. For 4 years, I’ve been the boss, she’s been the worker; I’m a man, she’s a woman; I’m older, she’s younger. Whether we acknowledge them or not, there are these structures in place. I’ve been trying to talk less and listen more.”

Echoing Herndon’s collaborative approach, Burns and Slender-White’s Platform has a variety of artistic advisers, including writer and curator James Fleming, choreographer Maurya Kerr, and dramaturge Cara Rose DeFabio. These artists, whom Burns referred to as “an extended family” also have an history with FACT/SF. They’ve been invited to be advisors for the commissioning program JuMP that Slender-White initiated in 2014 and work in a different style than the two artists, thereby offering an array of artistic points of view.

Aware of the political fracture experienced on the left between the respective supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, Slender-White was thinking “about how the internet is cultivating opinions and how we think that we are the same” during the making of the piece. “Liane and I are both dancers, both fair-skinned, both from California, we train in the same approach. There are a lot of similarities between us but the similarities end very quickly. This is how we got to [exploring] unison in the piece. Now, post election, none of that feels important anymore. The piece is actually about us, as people. It is about our working relationship. In a way it’s a meta-dance: it’s a dance about the creation of this dance,” Slender-White continued. “Being with the community you are in and being available for the community you are in have become most important to me. There is something radical just about us performing. If Hillary had won, I don’t think I would have that radical shift.”

Because of the complex choreographic structure and length of the piece (60 minutes) both artists agreed that mental stamina –the capacity to “really stay with it” — is more needed to perform Platform than physical endurance. In a way, that very act of sustained focus might be seen as an active undoing of digital habits that promote multi-tasking and jeopardize our capacity for sustained attention. In a New York Times article, chief executive of The Energy Project Tony Schwartz quoted author Nicholas Carr: “The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention (…) We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

The set envisioned by Burns and Slender-White is also designed to give the audience the possibility for increased focus. The audience will be in the round, surrounded by 4 walls where videos will be projected. On the screen, Burns and Slender-White are dancing the choreography they are performing onstage, sometimes in sync, sometimes with a delay, and are shot in a few locations throughout the Bay: “Because Holly spent so much of her career in the Bay, we wanted for the project to be from and of the Bay. We wanted the landscape and city to be present,” Slender-White commented. The videos give the impression that the two dancers have multiplied themselves and are in intermittent conversation with their digital selves: “Sometimes I’ll sync to myself and to him through the video. At other times, we connect to each other through the physical body,” Burns explained. “We try to broaden the idea of unison. If in the video I’m doing Liane’s movements but on stage she is doing my movements, how can these things be complicated or crossed?” asked Slender-White.

In Slender-White’s earlier piece Relief, the audience was sitting in a U-shape, braced by a 3-wall hanging movable structure. Increasing audience proximity to dancers is a way to accentuate the focus on “real tender moments that you might not see if you are far way,” stated Burns. “It also allows the audience to sit with us on the same level and forces them to look at each other.” Slender White added: “I am becoming less interested in having the performers really far away from the audience. I appreciate the structural possibilities that come out of that relationship, but I think it’s hard to communicate a sincere sense of humanity from that distance.”