By Stewart Pringle Westerners struggle to talk about space. We have no difficulty with the familiar mysteries and popular fictions of outer space, but we trip over absences, vacuums, intervals. Japan has the concept of ma , referring to the space between two structural parts, or a pause between two events.
Ma has a kind of substance: it is not merely the absence of other nameable things. At Londons Barbican last month, choreographer and visual artist Darren Johnston married the concept of ma with that of zero-point energy the idea that fleeting quantum fluctuations disturb even the most perfect vacuum. Developed over four years in collaboration with a cast of skilled Japanese dancers, and performed among Tim Heckers cavernous electronic soundscapes, Zero Point aims at a collision of the spiritual and the scientific.
It is a celebration of nothingness and rest. Opening with a wall of sound reminiscent of the first shivering chords of Heckers breakthrough album, Ravedeath, 1972 , the audience of Zero Point was scorched with an almost unbearable blast of light. Rows of blazing lanterns moved gradually through the dark, leaving trails across our retinas.
It was as though the audience was being scanned or studied. When the lights faded, it was impossible to tell whether the shadows moving onstage were performers or after-images. Everything in the world of Zero Point is slow.
A dancer stands centre stage and scoops up a beam of light from the floor. It follows his movements, trained on his hands. Another dancer stands trapped in a cube of light, which shifts and rotates around her.
The extensive use of fog turns spotlights into gigantic cones and pyramids. Everywhere, the performers are encircled and contained. There is no real absence here: just space made visible.
Johnstons work is frequently concerned with the architectural. He is himself an accomplished visual designer, and rather than relying on traditional stage lights, he has built Zero Point around several impressive projection techniques. Powerful projectors allow for pinpoint accuracy and body-mapping.
Johnstons dancers move through complex, glowing geometric shapes, projections perfectly mapped onto their contours. One moment sees a pair of dancers approach one another out of the dark, their bodies a rain of TV static the only visible points of light on a black and empty canvas, as though captured mid-disintegration in a Star Trek transporter. Heckers music, which is typically composed in response to the acoustics of the buildings where it is recorded or performed, is an ideal accompaniment for such spectacles.
Zero Point s narrative is abstract and obscure, but images of death and ceremonial burial are everywhere. The dancers take on the roles of warriors, priests and acolytes, but ultimately they express more elemental forces: their gradual movements, coupled with the constantly circling lights, suggest the fluctuations of quantum fields in so-called empty space. The work is a remarkable example of force achieved through stillness, but at its Barbican premiere, the trance state it promised somehow never quite descended.
Taken in isolation, each movement of Zero Point was evocative and hypnotic. The problem was that after a couple of revolutions, Johnston seemed to run out of gas. The sections didnt flow into one another.
There were awkward pauses as the stage was refilled with smoke. The audience didnt know whether to clap or remain silent. A performance of such focused intensity, which relies on creating an atmosphere of immersive low energy, cant afford to break away to regroup.
A collage of absences cant pause for breath. Zero Point ran from 25 to 27 May at the Barbican, London