Eight minutes is the time it takes for the sun’s light to reach the Earth: it’s also the title of Alexander Whitley’s new work, which is inspired by solar physics and aspires to conjure, through dance, the immensity of the forces that shape our universe.
Everything about the background to this piece, including Whitley’s close collaboration with a team of space scientists, might lead you to fear a project encumbered by facts and a duty to explicate. But the unsettling beauty of the work’s opening few minutes, with seven dancers moving in darkly flickering formation against a cosmic backdrop, makes it clear that Whitley has been liberated by the vastness of his subject, and has discovered a new level of poetic freedom and playfulness.
8 Minutes is loosely structured around sections, with each new theme flagged up by commentary from an anonymous but charming-sounding lecturer, and given visual life by Tal Rosner’s mesmerising fusion of scientific footage and original artwork. In the first section (which meditates on measurement and scale) the introductory dance of solar flares and planetary vistas switches down to a choreography of microscopic matter, with Rosner transforming the back wall into an abstract swarm of particles, against which the dancers cluster in their own darting, glimmering formations.
Driven by the mix of celestial and industrial music in Daniel Wohl’s score, Rosner’s artwork creates its own kind of space travel. Voyaging through wave patterns, glacier formations and psychedelic colour zones, it captures the alien unknowableness of the universe, as well as its visual magic. There are moments when the images overwhelm the dancing, but at its best Whitley’s choreography establishes its own enriching animating narrative: the burnished pulsing duet that feels like the heartbeat of the universe, the languid, insouciant ensemble where the dancers look like a freebooting drift of cosmic matter.
The choreography briefly travels back down to Earth, where the dancers, suddenly human, luxuriate in the light and warmth of the sun. But it is the lethal, incalculable power of the latter that dominates the work when, towards the end, Rosner’s image of the sun’s molten, seething surface grows larger and larger until it engulfs the stage. Words may be too small, too specific to measure up to the sun’s immensity, but there are moments when this clever combination of dance, music and imagery come close.