When art imitates life—and work

by Adrianna Gregory

It’s rare to be able to experience art that mirrors everyday experiences.

That’s why I knew I had to get tickets to Monumental the moment I saw the show advertised in a Brooklyn Academy of Music brochure. How could I turn down an interpretive-dance performance about urban life, the daily grind, and an unhealthy attachment to technology? (Also a plus: the chance to marvel at people dancing in pencil skirts and button-up shirts. I can barely ride the subway in the same outfit.)

IMAG2445The show—a collaboration between contemporary dance company The Holy Body Tattoo and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a Canadian post-rock band with a cult following—had its New York premiere this weekend after a years-long hiatus.

In the time since the last performance of Monumental in 2003, many elements of daily life have changed substantially enough that the show’s creators and choreographers, Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon, had to take a new approach to the central themes. Naturally, technology—and our addiction to it—plays a bigger role than before. Said Gingras in an interview with Jennifer Perras for Toronto’s Luminato Festival: “It is essential for me to make dance that makes the body present and brings focus back to the physical, as the body’s ever more complicated relationship with technology keeps reducing the body’s presence in the real.”

It worked for me. It’s rare that I last a waking hour without checking my phone, but the thought didn’t cross my mind during the performance. I was tuned in to what was happening in front of me in a way that I, regrettably, often am not. I was mesmerized, not just by the dancers’ athleticism and the live, ear-splitting music, but by the concepts behind the choreography and its fascinating, often-disturbing imitation of daily life.

The dancers spend much of the performance perched on two-by-two foot pedestals, and on the surface of each of these blocks is a small square of light that looks suspiciously like a cell-phone screen. They rarely leave these pedestals, rotating around them almost as if energized by them. The repetitive, anxious movements while they stand there call to mind our compulsive need to refresh internet pages and social media apps, and the lack of physical connections among the dancers exposes our tendency to disconnect from the people who are physically around us, even when we are standing just feet apart from one another.

And the show deals with more than just technology. The dancers move in ways that mimic everything from commuting to typing to the occasional forced social event. Many of the movements are repeated for minutes at a time, the whole group in perfect synchronization. If you squint, you can almost see yourself and your coworkers up on the stage—just imagine those pedestals are cubicles.

I’m willing to bet that most people in the audience, like me, had thought about these things before. Most of us are aware that our use of technology verges on addiction, and, as we’ve established in previous posts, there are a lot of problems to solve when it comes to office layouts.  But there’s something about seeing all of this play out on stage that is particularly unsettling—and inspiring. I left the theater with a renewed determination to engage with the people and experiences around me, and maybe not reach for my phone every five seconds.

Adrianna Gregory is the Associate Editor for Technology at Oxford Economics.