Sunday, December 06, 2015


Katharine Hawthorne
ODC Theater, San Francisco
Dec 5th, 2015

Katharine Hawthorne’s newest full-length contemporary dance, Mainframe, is an ensemble work. It has a cast of ten – five dancers and five old-school computers. The computers serve multiple functions throughout the piece - as seats, dance partners, props, set design elements, platforms and companions. And the sixty-five minute piece is all about the convergence of and the intersection between human behavior, machines and technology.

Before the main body of the dance began, Mainframe offered an introductory segment to set the mood. A see-through scrim was hung at the very front of the stage, with columns of light set against the back wall, and four of the five dancers present in the space. Through geometric, linear, pulsating movements and circuits, it felt like the dancers were in a real-life, full-size version of a video game, complete with players, routes and strategies.

Then the scrim dropped to reveal a single, early model computer, bathed in a spotlight and situated directly center stage. Dancer Gary Champi approached this object with equal parts curiosity and cautiousness, a narrative that would inform much of the dance that followed. In this pas de deux of discovery and greeting, he searched for signs of life and reaction in this
Pictured: Suzette Sagisi
Photo © Ben Hersh
rectangular box. And by the end of the initial interaction, we weren’t sure what he thought about this odd new entity. Was he frightened? Was he intrigued? Was he interested? As Champi pondered this addition to his environment, he was joined by the rest of the cast who resurrected the geometric, linear movements from Mainframe’s opening: shape-based poses and mechanized isolations, some almost inspired by puppetry.

Mid-way through the work, Hawthorne devised a series of gestures, each the manifestation of a command. From everyday computer functions to obvious physical instructions to high-level existential directives, it was a fantastic sequence, both conceptually and as performed by the dancers. As Mainframe moved towards its final chapter, one of the computers was taken apart. And the process of dissection revealed a prism of feeling. There was intrigue as to the internal components of the machine. There was disappointment as to what was not found. There was joy in the unexpected.

Choreographically, Mainframe had some stunning and poetic moments. Hawthorne’s work is always incredibly athletic and innovative, but Mainframe took that physicality to a new and exciting level. It was almost as if the suspension and release foundation had received an extra dose of contemporary technique. Multiple relevé phrases found the dancers balancing (at length) on one foot while the working leg shifted from position to position. Turned out grand rond de jambes soared through the space. And this cast was certainly equal to the task.

The dancers’ relationship to one another was another striking force in Mainframe. While they spent ample time in close physical proximity or sometimes even in contact, there was a purposeful distance, disengagement and disconnection. In most instances, it was the computers who were their dance partners, not each other. Seemed a befitting cultural observation – we are so often around others, yet at the same time, completely disassociated. Engrossed and enmeshed in technology rather than in human relationship.

As the lights dimmed on Mainframe, Champi and the computer danced a final duet, steeped in emotion and feeling – the curiosity and cautiousness from the beginning had given way to joyful attachment. While it seemed a hopeful note to end on, I wonder if Hawthorne was challenging the audience with this final image. Was this actually a happy ending? Or did it reveal a void and sadness; a lack of human interaction?

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