If the title of Jillian Peña’s Panopticon recalls nineteenth-century optical instruments, you’re on the wrong track. It’s French philosopher Michel Foucault who’s the real reference for the Brooklyn-based choreographer’s latest evening-length piece, making its world premiere as a dual presentation of the COIL and American Realness festivals at Abrons Arts Center. In the “Pantopticism” chapter of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault wrote, in reference to the arrival of plague in a town, “First, a strict spatial partitioning. . . . It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment. Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere.” Foucault goes on to discuss such concepts as observation, surveillance, quarantine, and purification, elements that Peña refers to directly and indirectly in Panopticon, a duet performed by Alexandra Albrecht and Andrew Champlin that can be seen as an extension of their collaboration on Peña’s Polly Pocket, which was part of American Realness in 2014. The Experimental Theater has been arranged so that there is one row of chairs on all four sides of the room. However, on the two short sides, there are an additional ten chairs, organized like bowling pins, with one chair pointing toward the center of the space, followed by rows of two, three, and four seats, creating confining gaps in all four corners. High on the wall in the middle of the two longer sides are slightly tilted boards covered in silver Mylar, offering distorted reflections of what is occurring down below. For nearly an hour, Albrecht and Champlin move in parallel spaces delineated by tape on the floor, as if mirror images of each other, though occasionally touching and breaking that plane, disrupting the effect in disturbing yet beautiful ways. In dry, monotone voices, they discuss happiness, separation, time, and isolation as they perform balletic moves. They get so close to audience members that tiny rips in their slightly different op-art-inspired costumes, designed by Christian Joy, are visible, although the dancers rarely make eye contact with the crowd.
Even though they are moving in and around some of the viewers, it is as if Albrecht and Champlin are in a world of their own, reciting text by Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard as well as original dialogue written by the two dancers and Peña, while subtle, ambient music by Atticus Ros, Brian Eno & Harold Budd, Max Richter, David Bowie, Wendy Carlos, and Rachel Elkind floats in the background. Meanwhile, a man in one corner is filming everything. The show was being promoted as “a solo and a work for 100 dancers,” a “kaleidoscopic” piece with video elements, but instead it’s an intimate, decidedly low-tech exploration of twinning and the relationship between performer and audience. As Foucault explained, “This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead — all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism.” There is a distinct architecture that pervades Panopticon, one that both frees you and holds you captive.