Notes on An Evening of Modern Dance: Deliberate Gestures

Joseph Parker’s An Evening of Modern Dance presents itself, at least at first glance, with all the self-serious trappings of the real form on which it’s based. The stage before you is dark, stark, with a mise en scène that’s empty save for the dancers and the spotlights trained on them. There’s a classic red curtain and an apron, and the wall-to-wall smoothness of Unity textures make the place feel unreal, serene, and ghostly, as if carved from clay and finely sanded.

Atonal music plays. Staccato pops of piano and strings punctuate the scene here and there. At first I played the game solo, my faceless wooden marionette (something like those mannequins used for drawing exercises, and just as smooth and featureless as everything else in the game) swaying and bending all alone, to an empty audience, on an empty stage. The spotlight served only to render its isolation more severe.

Then, suddenly, it snaps like a twig. The figure folds in on itself, and proceeds to jerk and jitter across the screen helplessly. Just a Unity bug, I figured. It’s to be expected with these sorts of little games.

I reset, this time picking the duet. I want my little dancer to have some company. The dance without a partner feels so dreary, so melancholy. But I have two hands, so I can hit both keyboard controls—WASD for the first dancer and IJKL for the second. No big deal. I try to gently sway and bend my dancers as long as the music plays, until, once again, my fingers get all tripped up. I hit too many buttons all at once, losing control of who’s mapped to what. Once again, one of my dancers crumples like a piece of paper and gets flung about the theater. Once again, I reset.

I’ve always had two left feet. I have some awful memories of attempts at dancing in my teen years, followed by ridicule, followed by me not trying again. I’m more of a “sit in a corner and drink” kind of person. But for some reason I’m attracted to games about dancing. Not actual dance games, but games which make use of rhythmic patterns as a ludic device: Patapon, the Bit. Trip series and Super Hexagon all come to mind. I’m not hopeless when it comes to music and perhaps this is the reason why I find these games engaging. For as much as I’ve admonished the elevation of ludic “flow” as an ideological ideal for every game, there’s something undeniably special and magical about musical flow that I find deeply moving and therapeutic, if possibly a little anodyne. It’s not exactly a numbing effect, although it certainly puts me into a zone. I find it exhilarating, the practised movements, the symbiosis of visual motif and rhythmic structure. At best, it’s a deeply impassioned experience for me, and it’s something that I can indulge in with relative privacy, at my own pace, without that spotlight of  a judgmental gaze. 

An Evening of Modern Dance also lets me into what feels like a private space—or at least a space where I can, through my own hands, project my desire to dance onto this clean digital vessel. But there’s a catch. This game is not rhythmic, and it’s not neatly structured. There is no clear, obvious pattern. But that doesn’t mean it has no logic.

Frustrated though I was at my failure to keep my dancers from turning into jittering will-o’-wisps and becoming airborne, I soon learned that this was not for nothing. On Parker’s page for this game, he notes that “If the physics glitch out you need more dancing practice.” I think I audibly laughed.

I have a soft spot for any game that uses the accidents of its tools as thematic or conceptual centerpieces. Glitch art for its own sake can sometimes be tiresome, but when used meaningfully it can be powerful and memorable–much more than something totally polished and sterile to the point of toothlessness.

The provocation in this game, I think, is twofold. It demands first that we don’t assume an “unpolished” game that retains bugs is also a thoughtless, ill-conceived or poorly-executed game, and secondly it demands than we understand that the fitful movements of modern dance are not artless or unpracticed, though they may appear to be to the untrained eye. Certainly, the hallmark of this kind of dancing at its best is how much discipline it takes to make these movements appear immediate, like organic emotional gestures instead of choreographed beats.

Eventually, I’m able to get to a point of managing both characters slowly and methodically, so that I’m able to respect the the time each animation takes to complete and stagger my key presses accordingly. I can make them move close to one another in intimate caresses, or quickly swing them to either side off the stage, suggesting turmoil and rupture. The empty set feels more lively, more determined. This is not a game, despite the open-ended, almost aleatory presentation of modern dance, of “flow” and telegraphed movements. This is a game of balance, control and discipline, where one takes one’s time and respects their space.

Or, there’s always letting things spin out of control for awhile. That can be beautiful too.