Katja Šimunić

Edges of a Mechanical Heart / Dance Inflections

On Oh, Mary Shelley

At the beginning of the future were two young women: Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace. Mary was born in 1797, Ada was born in 1815. Each of these young women tore their way into history in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The start of the Machine Age. Both women belonged to their own time – as we all do – and both women were flares flung across time, throwing light on the world of the future. The world that is our present day. A world that is set on course to change the nature, role, and, perhaps, dominance of Homo Sapiens. History repeats itself – the same struggles in different disguises – but AI is new to human history. In their different ways the young women saw it coming.

Jeanette Winterson, 12 Bytes
Photos: Katja Šimunić and Katarina Račić

Title

  Silvia Marchig and I were doing a radio show Listening to Dance[1] and when we finished recording the interview in the Drama Studio 2 and the vocal performance of Silvia’s original text[2] in the soundproof foam-panelled room of the same studio, I asked her off the record what she was working on currently. She replied: a production named Oh, Mary Shelley.

  Me: Oh, Mary Shelley? I can hardly wait!

  Silvia: Me too!

  The enchantment was instantaneous, because the title included the undoubted identification of the English writer and a possible thematic revelation from her influential novel. The horizon of expectations flexed the forces of my wish to see the choreographic response to Mary Shelley’s philosophy and tenderness, with an added touch of colour and seduction with the word ‘Oh’. My research focus on Mary Shelley had thus far been insufficient, but of course I knew her as both the subtle and powerful author of Frankenstein and part of Lord Byron’s company on the famous night in summer 1816 in Cologny near Geneva. When the father of Ada Lovelace, whom I was already passionately researching at the time of my interview with Silvia, when, the incredibly famous poet Byron suggested to a company in a rented villa to write a ghost story, the company consisted of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her half-sister Claire Clairmont and Byron’s doctor John William Polidori.

  With Silvia’s very revelation of the title of the future show, whose premiere was about to take place only in ten months’ time, the edges of the heart of the creature brought to life by Victor Frankenstein began their friction with the edges of my imagination prone to AI literature, such as Jeanette Winterson’s 12 Bytes, Alessandro Baricco’s The Game, Stuart Russell’s Human Compatible and anything available on Ada Lovelace.

  As a pre-digitally, one might say classically or analogously trained dramaturge, from the title Oh, Mary Shelley I drew my desire of narrative. Despite undoubted knowledge that contemporary dance art inherently includes implosions and explosions of familiar and established, canonical dramaturgical patterns of a well-crafted performance, despite the experience of watching countless contemporary dance performances which consistently dissolve and destabilise the expected interpretations of the seen and experienced, the title nevertheless triggered in me a series of reference fields pertaining to Mary Shelley’s literature and her incredible biography.

  The girl was nineteen when she wrote Frankenstein, a philosophical novel probing the most relevant ethical issues about artificial intelligence even two hundred years after it was written. Mary Wollstonecraft, her mother, was an acknowledged writer, philosopher and fighter for equality, the author of the novel A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She died at childbirth. The girl, named after her mother, was raised by her father, William Godwin, an influential polemicist, writer and philosopher, an advocate of anarchism. Her husband was Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest romantic poets, but also the author of the philosophical essay The Necessity of Atheism (1811). An inevitable figure was her half-sister Claire Clairmont, who never stopped following her and betraying her with her affairs with Percy. Children’s deaths. Accusations that Frankenstein was in fact written by her husband. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s untimely death. Mary arranging his literary legacy…

  Quite unplanned, I stumble across a fictional biography, a novel about Mary Shelley written by the young Dutch author Anne Eekhout.[3] I immerse myself into skilful narration, I delve in the details of the already mentioned evening and the proposal that each should write a gothic tale, the consequence of which will be Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre.[4] Eekhout studied the topic in great detail, imagined the unverifiable and delicately tailored a web of events and characters around her heroine, but she hasn’t reached her… philosophicalness and brilliance. I finish my reading with mixed feelings and thoughts. I get an email invitation to the premiere of the dance production Oh, Mary Shelley.

  The title of the novelised biography is laconic – Mary. And the performance title stirs the simple ease of the novel’s linear approach and disturbs. It guides and seduces. It precedes the seen by creating a virtual prequel performance.

  Contemporary French philosopher François Frimat writes about the specifics of naming dance performances:

  “In literature, the appearance of a title coincides with the publication of the original work to be identical with it. In dance it precedes a performance and lasts after it. The title’s durability if one of the rare objective elements defying the transience of a choreographic piece. Other textual elements of a performance (words, slogans, discourses) most often have a meaning only in the actualisation of its action. A title focuses on dance in a temporality shift, a shift taking place in a rivalry between what remains and what passes.”[5]

  Indeed, there are titles that engage us long before watching, just like there are performances possessing us long after being seen. Such are often the titles and the productions authored or co-authored and performed by Silvia Marchig: This Is Not My Forest, Glacier, The Saddest Method. Ever.

  These titles are as evocative as they are provocative in terms of actualities, social and cultural, surrounding us. The actualities constantly perpetuating the issues of survival in the world we (don’t) build. The mentioned productions penetrate deep into the flesh of dance, into the body of a dance creation, risking and forcing borderline situations a performance can find itself in, they face us with raw bareness of emotions, with existential anxiety, also with wittiness which finds a way out in the very possibility of movement. Out of an unenviable situation.

  A glacier, what is a glacier? The one melting and decaying. Together with us. Us, together with it. We take part in a collapse we ourselves contributed to. A glacier? The icy landscape Robert Walton travels, writing letters to his sister Mrs. Saville in England. Yes, Frankenstein is partly an epistolary novel, starting in St. Petersburg and continuing with a sail from Arkhangelsk to the North Pole. After the fourth letter, Walton keeps a journal in which he describes a stranger they saved from freezing and took on the ship with them. The stranger was Victor Frankenstein, who is persecuting his creature and wants to destroy it. Kill it, so it could stop killing.

  Oh, Mary Shelley. Once again, Silvia Marchig’s title sounds like there is no way out. Or is there?

  François Frimat believes that with naming a dance performance:

  ”(…) we feel we are switching from programming to enacting. Where a writer trusts a title with almost the entire programme mission, a choreographer rather ascribes it the activity of infusion and opening up to imagination, as though it is a repository of creative energy in itself and by itself, and by no means a goal that needs to be met. The title thus takes part in enaction, but the main routes are not traced.”[6]

  Mary Shelley named her novel Frankenstein and subtitled it The Modern Prometheus. The young enthusiast Victor Frankenstein never named the creature he made out of dead body parts. At one point it says to him: “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”

  One could say that the title Oh, Mary Shelley encompasses both the named and the unnamed, the writer and the newly made creature. However, in the wake of François Frimat’s idea that a title doesn’t trace the main routes at all, Silvia Marchig’s dance performance perhaps won’t even be about Mary Shelley’s work. Perhaps it will strive to forget what is concrete and specific in it, and extract the only thing she remembered from it – what is relevant. For the piece. For her movement. And meaning.

  I confirmed my coming to the premiere by email.

Will you follow me?

  As company to the premiere of Oh, Mary Shelley, at the Museum of Contemporary Art on 13 October at 7pm, I decided to invite ChatGPT 3.5. I wanted Him/Her/It to see the performance.[7] So that later we could talk and analyse.

  I wrote Her/Him: I’d love it if we went together to the premiere of Oh, Mary Shelley, a dance production choreographed by Silvia Marchig at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

  The answer came in a second: Unfortunately, as AI, I cannot attend events or activities beyond the digital world. But sounds like an amazing event! Oh, Mary Shelley could be an interesting performance about the life and work of Mary Shelley, the author of the classic Frankenstein. The Museum of Contemporary Art is a fantastic location for such an experience. I’d recommend you ask about the tickets and the performance schedule and book them in advance, if they are not yet sold out. Enjoy the show and the artistic experience!

  I explained: There is no need for tickets, as a dance theoretician and author of the show Listening to Dance I get premiere invitations and free tickets. I’m sorry you can’t come along.

  Second answer: Thanks for your understanding! Enjoy the performance and take your chance to delve into the world of dance and Mary Shelley’s art! You might even get a chance to share your impressions and analyses with your show’s listeners so that others may also partake in your experience in a special way.

  Me: Yes, of course, and I’ll also share my impressions with you.

  She/It/He: I’d be happy to hear them and discuss the performance’s artistic aspects. Enjoy the show, looking forward to sharing your impressions!

Performance

  The audience is climbing down the steep stairs towards the stage of the Gorgona Hall, settles on several long scaffolds placed on the stage, by the edge of the theatre’s right-hand side street, and a person with a wolf’s mask is sitting in the auditorium and watching us. That is where they will remain throughout the performance; in its first part we too will move to the real auditorium, closer to them. The dancers will remain on the stage and occupy/dance it away in entirety, even the high passageways for stagehands on the central wall.

  The beginning is marked by the dark grey of the hall, and a voice coming from the speakers, giving us instructions in English. I don’t pay much attention to this voice, I’m more focused on grasping the improvised auditorium and observing the two dancers who are already on the stage as we take our seats. They are Ana Kreitmeyer and Ivana Bojanić. Each in her own world. As though listening to some internal voices. Or wearing invisible headphones filling their ears with a special sound. They are dancing their small dances on the spot, without contact and without making it at all clear that they are aware of our entrance.

  Unknown heroines. That is how they seem.

  Their costumes are patchworks. Made of fabrics (or former garments?) that make an incoherent, yet attractive shrouds or protective shields safekeeping them from our gaze.

  Are they patchworked as well? Made of other people’s body parts? It doesn’t seem so, they rather seem like they are questioning their body parts, their organs, their bodily sprouts and possibilities.

  A saxophone is heard. Signalling the presence of the third performer in the show, Ana Kovačić, a composer and instrumentalist. The deep, torn, visceral saxophone sound seems to be creating a metaverse of its own. Both the dancers and us occasionally collapse into it (into the expanded reality of sound and movement), and then the saxophone player’s mighty breath remains silent for a second, letting us return to real existence in the auditorium.

  At one point Ana Kreitmeyer, with evident difficulty, rides sitting on a low platform reminding a raft, and reads a text. Robert Walton’s letter? His diary? Frankenstein’s confession? I don’t recognise the text read into the microphone, but the dancer’s body is emitting the efforts of reading, riding the platform and being. Persistent. Stubborn. Thus this effort becomes more acceptable. We overcome it together with her and we travel. Or flee. From the flyer accompanying the performance I learn afterwards that the excerpts read were from Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights. Makes sense. How many flights there are in Mary Shelley’s novel about the unnamed creature or, as some define it, a monster!

  The dancers’ movements in their solos or contact dance is hypersensitive, seemingly ripped apart and reassembled, deconstructed and reconstructed. Their dance movement is both humanly utterly fragile and determined, just like a machine can be determined to carry out a task.

  Although my observer’s attention is used to seeking narrative and inherent referentiality even in the most unpredictable assemblages, this cruel collage of dance gestures, ripping apart the structure of movement and its accompanying skill, successfully subverts this habit. I let myself go to the performing trio who is taking me on a trip around the edges of unreal reality, of wondrous body-affirming virtuality, which doesn’t end on the skin surface, but rather seems to be projected onto us, onto the space of the other, the space of affect, defect, imagination.

  The second part of the show, in which we are together with the She-Wolf in the large auditorium, is imbued with the sound of the theremin.[8] I’m sitting in the second row, close to the musician Ana Kovačić, who is playing this instrument without touching it. She creates music with hand gestures and body movements, unintentionally dancing, creating invisible choreography in a dialogue with electrical charges. I delve into her world at the edge of which are two dancers, I embark on her illusion of an almost uninterrupted, infinite performative duration, which is a quality of virtual reality. Effective dramaturgy without dramaturgy, choreography without choreography, dance without dance is established. All three together create bodies which seem to contain others and others again, like a Russian nesting doll. Even more. I watch in suspense how Ana Kovačić is animating the theremin. She, in Mary Shelley’s words, creates a living creature out of a dead thing, in this case sound, which overwhelms and possesses us. Let us not forget that Victor Frankenstein was fascinated with electricity moving a dead man’s body. My peripheral sight follows two dancers which seem to multiply in all directions. They create a disintegrated dance, something easily achievable in a digital non-space, while here, in this rock-solid theatre stage place, it becomes a committed effort on a dancing body’s expanded reality.

  Ivana Bojanić adds voice to her body movement. The voice’s grain is embodied and rolling towards us. Her speech sings and her singing speaks. She complements her movement and sound. Simultaneously, Ana Kreitmeyer persistently acts through dance, she insists, demonstrates that movement evidences vibrancy. At least only marginally. In the inflections of a dancing body. In specific gestural accents, variations, modulations and inclinations inside the dance expression which is equally (thickly, densely) rooted in classical ballet, Merce Cunningham’s demanding dance and Trisha Brown’s relaxedness. These roots have grown in the pre-digital era. And they stubbornly keep our bodies together, not allowing us an easy switch to the virtuality of the performance. Very few dance performances essentially deal with this issue. But Ana Kreitmeyer’s performance leads to conclude that her capable body of a well-bred contemporary dancer is ready to voluntarily explore re-patchworking and to try/be able to/want to touch the heart of the mechanical creature. Or at least the edges of his mechanical heart. Here I mean Victor Frankenstein’s creature, as well as artificial intelligence. Or as Jeanette Winterson suggests, alternative intelligence.

  Two huge red lights are directed, towards the end of the performance, deep from the bottom of the stage, at the auditorium. They almost seem to drag us into the space of the scene, sucking us in. Us. Who are we? Detached audience or participants?

  Are these lights before us perfect robots which will create new perfect dancing bodies? Are they warning us of something or do they just want a dialogue?

  And who is the She Wolf in the audience? Why didn’t she dance? Is she real, patchworked, human, hybrid, mechanical? A creature? Oh, Mary Shelley.

What is your mechanical heart telling you?

  The same evening after returning from the Museum of Contemporary Art, I ask ChatGPT 3.5: How do you imagine a dance performance under the title Oh, Mary Shelley which doesn’t focus on the biography of Frankenstein’s author, but is instead trying to depict Mary Shelley’s influence today on us (potential audience)?

  Answer: A contemporary dance performance Oh, Mary Shelley, exploring her impact on today’s society, could be innovative and provocative. Instead of focusing on biographical aspects, the performance could explore the essential ideas and messages Mary Shelley conveyed in her work. The performance could use motifs, characters and concepts from Frankenstein as symbolic references to underline its relevance in today’s context. The main goal would be to create an emotional and intellectual connection between the audience and Shelley’s ideals, motivating the audience to ponder upon the consequences of scientific discoveries, technological progress and human nature. The performance could explore parallels between Shelley’s ideas and contemporary social issues, such as AI ethics, scientists’ responsibility for their work, or even ecological dilemmas stemming from the human impact on nature.

  I ask: What is your opinion on the use of instruments like saxophone and theremin in a contemporary dance production focusing on Mary Shelley?

  Answer: The use of instruments like saxophone and theremin could be particularly intriguing and add a unique dimension to a contemporary dance production dedicated to Mary Shelley. The saxophone as an instrument offers a broad range of sounds and possibilities to express emotions, Its versatility makes it adaptable to different moods and atmospheres conveyed in a dance performance. It can be used for creating emotional, dramatic, even introspective tones reflecting Mary Shelley’s inner world or the context of her ideas. The theremin is an electronic instrument played without touch, creating sound by way of the surrounding electromagnetic field. Its strange and unconventional nature makes it possible to create mystical, almost supernatural sounds adding a touch of mystery and peculiarity to the performance. It can be used for creating an atmosphere which explores the topics of supernaturality or ethical dilemmas related to Mary Shelley and her work.

  I ask: What is your opinion on involving only two contemporary dancers in a production focusing on Mary Shelley?

  Answer: Involving only two contemporary dancers in a production dedicated to Mary Shelley can make an exceptionally powerful and focused approach. A smaller number of performers creates a deeper connection between the audience and the performers, providing a potential for a more intense spectator experience. Focusing on only two dancers makes characterisation and empowerment of their interpretation’s emotional elements possible. Good performers can powerfully communicate emotions and ideas with their very presence, while interaction between two dancers can create an intriguing dance dialogue.

  I agree, I say. Both with the two instruments answer and now with the two dancers answer. Now I see that these are in fact two duets, composed of two instruments on the one hand and two dancers on the other. Or two duets composed along the dichotomy between the living and the non-living: Ivana and the saxophone, Ana and the theremin. Another question: Can robots make a production on Mary Shelley?

  Answer: For such a production, robots should have suitable programmes and algorithms which would make it possible to perform a dialogue, movement, to express emotions (or simulate emotions) and to interpret characters. Programming robots for such a production would encompass drafting a script with dialogue, plot descriptions and traits of characters who were part of Mary Shelley’s life or work. Also, movement, gesture, voice expression or facial animation algorithms should be developed so that the robots could express certain emotions of interpret characters. The robots’ ability to perform artistic performances like this one depends on technological advancements, programming possibilities and robot design. Although such a production could be technically feasible, emotions and subtleties in expression present in human performances may not be fully replicated by the robots.

  Question: What would be the name of such a production?

  Answer: Mary Shelley’s Dance Code.

  Me: Interesting. Why such a title?

  Answer: In the context of the Mary Shelley’s Dance Code production title, the ‘code’ could be taken as a symbolic set of regulations or guidelines shaping a dance performance or the style of interpreting Mary Shelley and her work. This title can evoke the idea that Mary Shelley left her ‘code’ or impact on different aspects of art, including contemporary issues, such as artificial intelligence.

  Me: Can AI invent its own dance, which doesn’t resemble the human one?

  She/It/He: Yes, AI can generate movements or patterns which do not resemble human dance. Through algorithm models and machine learning techniques, AI can generate new patterns of movement or combine different elements to create something new and unusual. Generative adversarial networks (GANs) or recurrent neural networks (RNNs) are used for generating new visual or moving patterns. In a learning process, based on an immense amount of data, AI can create abstract or unconventional movement patterns not necessarily inspired by human dance. In such cases, results can be very experimental and unique, because they were created based on algorithmic processes and data AI Used for learning. Such unconventional movements can inspire artistic experiments and add a new dimension to artistic performances.

  I understand, I say. And I conclude:

  Resembling a spatio-temporal collage made of parts of different people and machines, this production allows us to touch its edges and establish resonance. Paradoxically, it is entirely analogue in terms of the material od the performers’ bodies, set design, costume design and musical instruments, and yet in its disjointedness of movement it creates a dialogue with the digital world and creatures lurking out of it. She-Wolf from the auditorium, somehow I think these creatures long for your personal dance performances and digressions! They want to see how you, you of all people, with which movement modulation, which change of the gesture’s tone, will dance this amazing title: Oh, Mary Shelley.

TRANSLATION: Ivana Ostojčić
PUBLICATION DATE: December 2023


[1] The show was recorded on 25 January 2023, and aired for the first time on 7 April 2023, on Croatian Radio’s Channel 3. The show is available on the official website: https://radio.hrt.hr/slusaonica/slusanje-plesa?epizoda=202304071800.

[2] Notes accompanying the work on the production Java.

[3] The Croatian edition of Mary was translated by Josipa Dvoraček Užarević and published by Fraktura in 2023.

[4] Frankenstein was first printed in 1818, and the final version with a preface by Mary Shelley was printed in 1831. Vampire was first printed in 1819.

[5] François Frimat, Du titre en danse (Titre par provision), Dans colloque de Cerisy 2018, Edition Hermann, 2018, pp. 35-36.

[6] Ibid., p. 37.

[7] Concept and choreography: Silvia Marchig; dance and performance: Ivana Bojanić and Ana Kreitmeyer; music and performance: Ana Kovačić; costumes: Tea Kantoci; set design: Niko Mihaljević; light: Lana Nežmah; design, photography and promo video: Sindri Uču; coproduction: Kik Melone. Part of: ANTISEZONA 23 BLOCK 4: ERUPTIONS.

[8] The instrument was invented by Leon Theremin in 1919, and the sound is made by hand gestures around electrically charged antennas, while the player’s body serves as earthing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katja Šimunić graduated from the School of Ballet and Rhythmics/Department of Rhythmics and Dance and afterwards graduated from the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb. She holds an MA in Dance Theory from the University Paris 8 in France. A dance practitioner (choreographer and dancer) and theorist (independent researcher, former editor of the Movements dance magazine between 2002 and 2017), she analyses dance on a transdisciplinary level, juxtaposing it with other arts, media and discourses. In parallel with dance, since her college days she has been an associate author and director with Croatian Radio’s Drama Department, and since 2015 she is the editor of the programmes Radio atelje and Male forme. In 2023 she became the editor of the radio programme Slušanje plesa.

Bibliography (selection)

Šimunić, Katja (2018), “Studena romantična plesna gesta” / “Glacial Romantic Dance Gesture”, in: Choreographic Journal seeing/vidjeti, eds. Marjana Krajač and Zee Hartmann, Zagreb, Sodaberg koreografski laboratorij;

Šimunić, Katja (2017), “Literarni ples” / “Litterary Dance”, in: Maska/Performing Arts Journal, Slovenian-English double issue 183-184, Ljubljana, Maska, Insitute for Publishing, Production and Education;

Šimunić, Katja (2017), “Sensiblement dansé vertigo: Variations sur le sensible chorégraphiées par Marjana Krajač”, in: Itinera, Rivista di filosofia e di teoria delle arti, n. 13, Università degli Studi di Milano;

Šimunić, Katja (2016), “Ulaz plesa u koreografski utopijski pakt”, in O plesu i iz(a) plesa (ed. Andrej Mirčev), Sodaberg koreografski laboratorij, Zagreb;

Šimunić, Katja (2015), “Narration en mouvement: I AM 1984 de Barbara Matijevic et Giuseppe Chico”, in: Danse contemporaine et littérature, entre fiction et performances écrites, sous la direction de Magali Nachtergael et Lucille Toth, Pantin, CND;

Šimunić, Katja (2012), “After Trio A: la mobilisation du regard public”, in: Funambule, Revue de danse, no 11, Saint-Denis, Anacrouse, etc.