Parallel lines are defined as two lines in a plane that do not meet. They can be infinitesimally close to each other, but the defining condition of parallelism is that they extend into infinity, in both directions, without ever touching. Parallel Lives, a new dance piece created and performed by Beth Corning in collaboration with Arthur Aviles, takes this condition of parallelism and applies it as a metaphor for human (dis)connection in the digital age. The choreography uses movement, props, visual projections, music, and human voice to explore how technology, in connecting us with others at a distance, seems also to foster an inability, or lack of desire, to reach out and touch those who may be as close as the other side of a shared wall.
Like much of Corning’s work, the piece does not aim for narrative clarity; Corning’s strength as a storyteller and choreographer lies in her deployment of ambiguous and multivalent metaphor. Two people inhabit spaces separated by a thin wall of scrim – his space is in front, hers in back. Are they neighbors? Friends separated by a great distance? Total strangers? Lovers? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Their lives are parallel, not just spatially but also in terms of their activity. As the piece begins, each is doing something (he is watching a football game on television, she is folding laundry) while also addictively staying “connected,” in a perpetual multitasking frenzy of texting, selfie-taking, email-checking, web-surfing, and tweeting. Their spaces are marked by parallel stamps of consumer-culture’s anonymizing influence: both have iphones and Macbooks, personality-less gray furniture from Ikea, and identical white coffee cups. As the piece progresses, they unwittingly trade spaces, awaken momentarily from their digital stupor, make an attempt at something resembling real intersection and interconnection, and eventually wind up back alone in their parallel spaces, reabsorbed in their screens and windows. Was it all a dream or fantasy? Or have their devices led them to prefer the digital relationship’s physical solitude over the hazards and uncertainties that accompany making physical and emotional connections in the flesh? Again, we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.
Corning’s skilled choreography and performance is marked by her trademark sense of whimsy and humor and her ability to craft evocative and powerful stage images: for example, one image in particular that stays with me is Corning, lying on a table, intimately curled up with her laptop (an image that says alot about how many of us feel about our computers!). But Arthur Aviles is the real revelation in this piece. The 51-year-old dancer brings a lovely, gorgeous eloquence to the movement; there’s deep experience in his body. His work here proves Corning’s point, in forming “The Glue Factory Project,” that mature dancers have new things to bring to dance, even if their bodies are less strong and supple than in their youth (although Aviles himself seems not to have lost much athleticism or flexibility with age). Another highlight of Parallel Lives is the projection art (Akiko Katani) and projection design (Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh), which dances along with Aviles and Corning on the screens, providing a two-dimensional visual counterpoint to, and commentary on, the choreography’s three-dimensionality. At times the projections can be taken for digital information zooming through the air; at others, they are an abstraction of a video game; at others, simply parallel lines traversing the space; and, in the end, rain, or static, or the daily white noise that keeps us from really communicating with others. Like the dance itself, the projections are purposefully sketchy and ambiguous, inviting a ruminating exploration rather than a definitive answer.
The piece has some flaws. The opening section of the dance, which establishes the two characters’ obsession with, and addiction to, their various screens and devices, is overly long and grows tiresome; as uninteresting as it is to be in the company of someone who will not stop using their smartphone, it’s even less interesting to watch two performers do the same for too long. Moreover, the rules governing use of the human voice in the work are confusing and unclear: in some moments a dancer may speak, and in the following mime speaking; or mime singing in one scene and then sing aloud in another. This literal miming is jarring and unfortunate in a work that otherwise makes powerful use of the body to express in more abstract ways. For once Corning and Aviles start really dancing (to a terrific selection of music ranging from pop tunes to classical), their exploration of how connection can be “so close and yet so far away” is both stirring and thought-provoking.