“Panopticon” immersive dance show to feature futuristic critique of conformity


Source: Lynn Lane

A performer in “Panopticon.” The immersive show from Open Dance Project will play at Studio5 on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2.

Jennifer Zhan, Reporter

Are you ready to abandon your “savage land” and step into a world of true progress?

That’s the question dancers will pose at the start of “Panopticon,” an immersive show following two lovers in a futuristic society under constant surveillance. The invitation to join the performers is literal — during the hour-long experience, audience members stand as the action unfolds around them.

“Panopticon,” presented by the Houston-based company Open Dance Project, will run on Nov. 1 and 2 at the Studio5 performing arts center in Evanston. Former Northwestern professor Annie Arnoult (Weinberg ’97), who’s now the Open Dance Project founding artistic director, compares the show to a haunted house.

“You can touch things, things are going to move around you, and you can be as close or as far away from the performers as you want to be,” Arnoult said. “We’re really trying to engage the audience on all of their sensory levels so that they stay alive inside of it rather than feel like a passive observer.”

While “Panopticon” might not have the horrors or jump-scares of a haunted house, Arnoult said some of the topics featured in the show can be frightening. She added that the production can serve as a warning to maintain “healthy suspicion” in a society where many people get their news from headlines alone.

As they witness the way citizens in this supposedly ideal world are being monitored, she said audiences will also feel the controlling power of “the watching eye.”

“In (‘Panopticon’), truth is completely created from the top down,” Arnoult said. “We need to be really proactive about making sure we’re not in a world that’s doing that as well. It’s really important for us to know what’s going on and to hang on to our voices — for me, that’s my voice as an artist, a maker of ideas, a voting citizen.”

A panopticon is a circular prison where a central guard can observe all prisoners. Arnoult first encountered the concept through philosopher Michel Foucault, who wrote about the structure to discuss societal surveillance.

The idea continued to germinate over the next ten years, she said, as she became drawn to books like “Brave New World” and “1984” that focus on futuristic dystopias.

While the lovers in “Panopticon” face rigid rules, the show’s choreography has no limits. Arnoult said audiences can expect to see styles ranging from ballet to jazz, alongside fight choreography reminiscent of martial arts.

Studio5 founder and co-artistic director Béa Rashid said the performing arts center tries to feature programs that will challenge people’s views of dance. Through “Panopticon,” Rashid said she hopes audiences will see the power of nontraditional storytelling.

Having worked alongside Arnoult in the Evanston Dance Ensemble, Rashid said she has full confidence in Arnoult’s artistic vision and expertise.

Arnoult previously taught dance at Northwestern and founded the Striding Lion Performance Group in Chicago, which Dance Center Evanston managing director Calyn Carbery (Comm ’10) danced with for several years after taking Arnoult’s classes at NU.

“It’s nice to have (Arnoult) come back into the space with this performance and look at that full circle of working with students, teachers (and) past performers,” Carbery said. “It brings everything back together, it’s like a beautiful homecoming.”

Carbery said she looks forward to seeing Arnoult’s innovative work in “Panopticon.” She added that the way Arnoult weaves in inspiration from her dancers allows them to “sink their teeth in” the performances, which is critical when the audience is only inches away.

Accommodations will be provided to ensure the experience is equally accessible and intimate to those with limited mobility. Arnoult said she hopes audiences leave understanding that true intimacy can’t exist without acknowledging individuality and celebrating differences.

“A world that erases discomfort, pain and suffering in order to find happiness doesn’t have any room left for humanity,” Arnoult said. “The show is saying, ‘Embrace the weirdness, embrace the yuckiness — that’s where the potential for connection sits. Recognize that difference might provide some tension, struggle and fight, but it’s worth it to stay human.’”

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