Human Hearts Power Electric Ones: A One-of-a-Kind Performance

Written by Kaitlin McCarthy

The Eternal Glow of Electric Hearts in rehearsal
Photo by Joseph Lambert
Premiering this Friday, September 7, 2012, for a 3-day run at the Intiman Studio, The Eternal Glow of Electric Hearts brought together theater, dance, and engineering in a one-of-a-kind show. Sponsored by SeattleCenter’s Next Fifty celebration, the performance posed the question, How have our ideas about the future changed since the Space Needle went up? Directed by Tim Smith-Stewart, the show revolved around a multi-story contraption, designed by Charley Spitzack. The building and operation of the machine was the driving force of the piece, cut with theatrical sequences of over-the-top mid-century idealism. Choreography by Amy Johnson, who also performed, was an integral part of the work, ever-present and weaving together all the elements of the show.

Eternal Glow in rehearsal
Photo by Joseph Lambert
The piece opens with a performer turning the crank on a small machine to the side of the stage. The machine creaks, churns, and begins producing enough electricity to power one small orange light. The sound of the machine contrasts nicely with the bubbly ‘50s music that begins to play as the dancers, wearing animatronic grins, march along with stiff, gestural movement. A familiar aesthetic, it instantly evokes the creepy sense of the ‘50s and ‘60s made famous by The Stepford Wives. An actor spouts naive rhetoric about the future, before the mood shifts and the dancers begin to build. Lit entirely by performers holding industrial clip lamps, the piece successfully achieves a post-apocalyptic quality helped by the austere costumes—identical black shorts, tank tops, and sneakers. Dancers pose and interact superficially with pieces of the contraption, seemingly to take up time and attention so the machine can be built. Smith-Stewart should have more faith—his audience is willing to wait to see what the contraption can do, the building of the machine is enough action on its own.

The tiny crank is continuously operated until the first layer of the contraption reveals a larger crank that operates a larger light bulb, and the whirr of this new crank becomes the soundscore for the rest of the piece, as a relay race of exhausted performers battle to keep the light on. Watching the energy exerted to keep one singular bulb lit may be the most powerful component of the work—demonstrating a tangible image of energy and electricity. The machine is built to two more layers, the second with more cranks and bicycle wheels and ropes, and though the dancers labor away at them, they seem to be connected to nothing. The third tier of the contraption seems to have no function whatsoever, which is anti-climactic.

Johnson’s choreography brought a necessary element of humanity to the piece with a series of thoughtful solos and duets that developed abstract relationships between the dancers. Reflective of the machine, the duets revolved around pushing and pulling, but also contained fear, support, love, and community. Organically working in and out of the floor, an expertly performed duet between Johnson and Madeline Marchal was particularly moving. These dance sequences wove gestural movement into the practical, and captured human subtlety. They felt honest, and deepened the work considerably.

Eternal Glow in rehearsal
Photo by Joseph Lambert
The sequences referencing American mid-century, however, were less successful; they felt overly familiar and went on too long without development. This trope has a long history in American pop culture, and Smith-Stewart does not need to hit his audiences over the head with it. With a little added nuance, these sections could accomplish something other than stale parody. Similarly, the dance became cheesy when it was used to increase the value of functional actions. Choreographing and “art-ifying” how a dancer dons a climbing harness or moves a piece of wood makes the movement overly affected. Much more interesting is the honesty and efficiency with which these performers do the work. There is innate value in the most functional of actions.

Poetry is also an important element of the show, with the letters cut from paper and then projected, line by line, as a performer shines light through the cutout. The poem feels like a riddle, and the shadowy projections give a grim context to the words that is very effective. “The future has already happened” it repeats. The piece seems to be saying that what we have now is the future created with actions in our past, and our future is determined by the actions we make now. It ties the work together nicely, and the message hits close to home, even if the delivery could use some reengineering. The people behind Electric Hearts are clearly talented, and have given Seattlea one-of-a-kind performance and a lot of food for thought.

A version of this piece can be seen at VelocityDanceCenter’s Big-Bang-Party Saturday, September 17. http://www.velocitydancecenter.org/. For more information about this project, go to: http://eternalglow-electrichearts.tumblr.com/.