People are complex. Our human experience is troubled by contradictions, like the way that we rely on routines and habits, and yet crave novelty and difference. In a relationship, these paradoxical impulses can be confounding. How do you reconcile intimacy with the spiralling pathways of our separate journeys?
In Fractals of You, the latest work by the dance duo Tentacle Tribe, Emmanuelle Lê Phan and Elon Höglund address this question through a geometric concept that has long inspired artists. The performance takes both its title and primary fascination from the phenomenon of similar patterns repeated at every scale — macro or micro, a fractal looks the same. It’s a tantalizing abstraction because fractals present a vision of infinity contained within the structures of nature: the curl of a frond, the spiral in a sunflower and maybe even the shape of our personalities.
With this material, Tentacle Tribe joins a pattern of choreographers seeking inspiration in mathematics. Peggy Baker’s 2015 locus plot comes to mind, for example, or Christopher House’s 2014 Martingales. Guillaume Côté also explored the same material in 2011 in Fractals: a pattern in chaos.
Though not new, this trend in contemporary dance focuses on the aesthetics of mathematical concepts. It’s like a form of exoticism, except instead of finding intrigue in a faraway culture, now the foreign language is equations. Of course, dance does have an innate affinity with math, insofar as dancers have traditionally depended on music — the most mathematical artistic medium — to discover, measure or at least amplify their phrases. Why not go back to the source and find out what all those seductive little symbols and numerals might suggest?
Tentacle Tribe’s Fractals of You is full of fractals, or at least things that look like fractals. The dancers perform with a succession of illustrations projected on a scrim, like an elaborate slideshow. Some are layered video clips, others are drawings in a psychedelic style, all in stark black-and-white. At one point, many arms descend from the top, suggesting the delightfully fractal-like notion that a person’s fingers could be thought of as tiny arms — arms upon arms! Likewise, the patterns in smoke and the shapes of oil in water may or may not be real fractals, but they do feel like fractals, and so on: the branches of trees, the veins in the body, and all the spindly, nerve-like things that fill the world with life. All can be considered as “fractals.”
As the piece continues, we become enveloped with the sense that the universe is founded on fractals. Maybe fractals are the key to finding one’s place in the world, because they remind us that we are each a tiny reflection of something vast and intricate and, at the same time, composed of many miniscule thoughts and feelings that are also grand on their own terms. But whether or not we can deduce a theory of life from the loveliness of a mathematical set that lurks throughout nature, the real emotional heft of the show enters from another source entirely, namely, through the sustained tension that Lê Phan and Höglund carry between them.
Fractals of You is a duet, and though a duet may present many interesting ideas, the real focus will always be the pair of humans dancing: their two-ness and not oneness, and how that feels. Lê Phan and Höglund have been dancing together since 2005. It is a gift to witness such a well-travelled onstage relationship, not as some perfected togetherness but as a vision of that strange alchemy whereby familiarity breeds mystery. The more we merge, the more we realize we are not the same. Being together, feeling separate: these conditions expand in tandem.
As breakdancers, Lê Phan and Höglund come from a form that finds a lot of joy in flourishes of timing. Their performances are equally impressive, especially in the way they play with each other through physical synchronicities. (This effect was somewhat obscured by the unfortunate costume choice of trench coats.) They do a lot of puppet work, seeming to cause each other to move with invisible strings, tugging arms and legs into the air or dragging each other backwards. Likewise, they make the looping soundtrack into an almost physical presence, a third partner on the stage who nudges and stirs their bodies. They often situate themselves on opposite sides of the scrim, their embattled condition vividly extended through black-and-white hand-drawn illustrations projected between them. Whether toying or fighting with each other, they always seem to be asking, “Where do you stop and I begin?”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the most exciting moments in Fractals of You were the solos. Lê Phan, in particular, has a sequence in the middle where she hunches into herself, with her hair hanging in front of her face. It’s a simple effect, but the creaturely transformation is arresting. With powerful fluidity, she literally unhinges herself and becomes like a spirit in the tall grass, dancing with the wind — part scarecrow, part elf. Höglund cuts more of a young Siddhartha figure, pre-enlightenment: restlessly seeking serenity. There’s a self-containment in his movements that speaks of loneliness and urgency, but also a greater degree of focus.
Fractals present an image of complexity that never ends. Mathematically produced fractals are always elegant, even when disorienting. Real-world fractals, on the other hand, grow increasingly chaotic. The spiralling is also an unravelling. Fractals of You didn’t leave audiences with a clear message or an obvious conclusion to this entanglement that Lê Phan and Höglund describe. Is it more like the Celtic knot, which entrances through weaving and mingling, or the Gordian knot, which snarls progress and therefore must be cut out? But for all the complexity, fractals can be simple too. Take a step back, and it’s just two people, dancing.