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Friday, July 3, 2015


"The Futurist"
Laura Peterson Choreography
Judson Memorial Church, New York 
July 1, 2015 

By Tom Phillips 

Fortunato Depero, "Skyscrapers and Tunnels" 1930   
The infrastructure and the past are Laura Peterson’s twin obsessions. In one dance after another, she sets out to discover what makes the world tick, whirr, click and go round; and how the present was invented in the past. She’s most fascinated by the recent past -- and how this sleek post-modern world emerged from the now-clunky-looking cocoon of modernity.

“The Futurist” is her latest X-ray of civilization, a look into the works of Futurism, a doomed movement of the 20s and 30s, personified by Benito Mussolini, who made the trains run on time. Speed, war and clockwork technology were supposed to create a super-civilization, a locomotive of brutal, unstoppable progress.

Its essence was the flywheel – a rotating mechanical device used to store and then release rotational energy. A flywheel is designed so that the further from the center the mass is, the more effect is has on the object’s momentum and kinetic energy. They’re used in giant industrial engines, cars and turbines – and they make the sound Walter Mitty daydreamed in 1939 -- “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.”  

And so the first sound we hear in the live score to Peterson’s “The Futurist” is a clicking, whirring "pocketa-pocketa-pocketa," and the signature move of the piece is a kind of leveraged forward pirouette – the arms and legs flying out as far as possible from the core, squaring the amount of energy released by a standard tight turn.

In Peterson’s visionary work, dancers are never characters -- they're elements of a larger whole, which itself is a sign of some larger whole. In this case it’s the infrastructure of military-industrial might, later to be refined, transistorized, then digitized into the superhuman power we experience today when we turn on our computers, phones and drones. We no longer hear "ta-pocketa-pocketa," but the whirring is there in the deep background.

This is all about power, and Peterson’s four-woman company is up to it. Their repetitive movements are violent, spasmodic, but gradually absorbed into a system. The basic form is the circle -– the flywheel in motion. There’s also an intense wrestling match, two women tumbling over each other diagonally across the floor with a microphone stuck between them, picking up the friction of the moving, clashing bodies – sparks flying, creating energy like a human turbine.

It’s the second time I’ve seen “The Futurist.”  The previous time, the wrestling match was between a woman and a man, moving across a wall. It was electric. This time it was two women, Jennifer Sydor and the newest member of the company, Meghan Frederick. I was skeptical that two women could create the same kind of friction, but Frederick proved me wrong. She is a dynamo, a powerhouse; the highlight of the whole piece was her solo, capped with a rocketing series of what looked like chaine turns with her arms straight up, blasting across the floor like a human cylinder.
The Futurist, 2014

The future is always changing, and so is “The Futurist,” depending on the space it’s in. The first time I saw it was in a gym-like neutral space, with Peterson’s own abstract art as a backdrop. This time it was in a sacred space, the sanctuary of Judson Memorial -– sacred both as a church and the birthplace of post-modern dance. The backdrop this time was high above – an illuminated stained-glass window, with a cross at the center. This added a mysterious reference to a more distant past. Even the Middle Ages are not dead, it seemed to say, just hidden in the present.

“The Futurist” was presented as part of Judson’s ongoing project to join religion, the arts, and social justice in one great space. Since the financial crisis of 2008 they’ve been providing an evening of free food and performance the first Wednesday of every month.  The food was good, too.  

Copyright 2015  by Tom Phillips