“So often, classical or, you know, contemporary classical always looks backwards for their inspirations,” says composer and musician Peter Van Zandt Lane. “People are a little bit timid about digging into the important things that are going on around them.”
Lane is talking about his latest project, “HackPolitik,” a contemporary ballet about the hacker collective Anonymous. It will be performed on November 15 and 16 at the Boston University Dance Theater.
But is Anonymous the right topic for a ballet? For Lane, the answer is obvious.
“One of my other more scholarly passions is (studying the) intersections between music and politics,” he says. Lane also teaches as an adjunct faculty at Brandeis, UMass Lowell and Harvard University.
“I created a course that I teach pretty regularly at Brandeis called ‘protest and propaganda music.’ And that covers a whole gamut of different topics including (Dmitri) Shostakovich and early 20th Century Russian music all the way to John Lennon and the music of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement… A lot of the music I’ve typically composed for ensembles incorporates technology in some way,” he says.
Lane continues. “… And I had been following these cyber attacks in the news and (was) fascinated by this whole idea of Anonymous and these collectives of hackers and technologists that were seemingly having a real critical effect on the issues that they were engaging in.”
The composer began researching the attacks and how Anonymous was taking action. “Okay, all this stuff is happening online,” he says. “Is there a way we can creatively make that happen onstage? Is there a way to physicalize that?”
Telling the Story
Lane pitched his idea to Lidiya Yankovskaya over dinner one night. Yankovskaya is Artistic Director of the Juventas New Music Ensemble, a group that specializes in working with composers under the age of 35. Yankovskaya was immediately intrigued by what he calls his “half-baked idea.” She suggested he contact choreographer Kate Ladenheim, Artistic Director of The People Movers, based in New York City. Ladenheim and Lane began collaborating on the ballet.
Coming up with a storyline was a challenge, especially considering the difficulties of the form.
“There’s a reason why most traditional ballets are all like, folklore, for instance. Because ballet is a terrible art form to really tell a good story because there are no words. You have to communicate a narrative through music and dance. And that is difficult to do with a degree of specificity,” he says.
Then Lane stumbled upon the book, “We are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency,” by Parmy Olson. The book provides details about a handful of online characters behind cyber attacks on such companies as PayPal, as well as the Tunisian government.
Lane and Ladenheim focused on three characters that Olson interviewed in her book. “… She was able to get in touch with and interview a couple of them because they had been arrested. (They were) talking to the press because they were no longer anonymous. So we got a little bit of insight into their personalities. And personalities are very important for a choreographer to be able to work with,” he says.
Topiary, Sabu and Kayla, the main characters, are also drawn from online interactions. “The idea is that… these characters are being represented onstage as they represent themselves online. So their real life personalities don’t even come into play,” he says.
“The storyline is that they are involved with these cyber attacks we portray on stage, but they start to become gradually more egotistical,” Lane says. “And it’s sort of the sense of hubris that eventually leads to their downfall. Because they eventually form this spinoff, LulzSec, which is much less about the fundamental tenants of Anonymous…. And more about them just sort of messing with people and having a good time. It’s still very politically motivated but they’re sort of wild personalities… And ultimately that’s what gets them caught.”
Another character, Laurelai, is one of the more interesting on the ballet’s canvas. “She’s a transgendered, male to female transgendered woman who is sort of experimenting with this idea of representing herself as a woman around the same time,” he says.
Laurelai and The Jester, another character, have complicated relationships with Anonymous. In the story, they cause problems by trying to uncover the identities of the others or speaking out against them.
Lane notes that the person behind the persona of Laurelai has been in touch with him, and says that she identified as a female before becoming a figure in Anonymous.
“Again she had gotten in touch originally because she felt like, one of the things we had made a statement about in some of the PR about this particular character was sort of misrepresented. So we fixed it. And she actually has been in touch with the dancer that’s representing her. And they’ve actually had a conversation about how she was being represented. But also, now she’s a very outspoken figure for LGBT rights… And was probably able to contribute information to the dancer who is portraying her… Again, we were trying to use people as they represent themselves online. But the choreographer really wanted to work with a dancer that she’s worked with before who identifies on the transgender spectrum. And (Ladenheim) felt like he would have a lot of insight into this particular role,” Lane says.
“In traditional ballet, we have movements and thematic archetypes for masculinity and femininity, so what happens when we put those on a continuum? And try to compose a transition from male to female? So this is more of an abstract version of a part of this story,’ he says.
The ballet features an 8-minute solo for Laurelai to make a transition from male to female. “We’ve previewed it at a couple of small performances in New York,” he says. Lane adds that the exploration of this idea is one of the more powerful aspects of the ballet.
They chose the gender of the dancers according to how the characters represented themselves online. “There are two characters actually who we know are men but who represent themselves as women. And they are represented as women onstage.”
“The idea that Parmy (Olson) posed was the idea that these online networks and communities were giving an open space for people to explore their own gender and represent themselves as, you know, not their own gender.” The Internet may provide the opportunity for people to become the gender they associate with, rather than the gender they are born into.
While the ballet focuses on Anonymous, the audience might start considering their own online personas. When you go online, what kind of character are you inventing?
“Whether or not we are engaged in cyberactivism… We are constantly thinking about ‘what do I write here? How do I portray myself to the rest of the world?’… We spend an enormous amount of effort into shaping our online personalities,” Lane says.
“If we can at least take a moment, and I think this is one of the powerful things that art can do, is give you a moment to reflect on some of these things… You know, if we can just have a place where we can just sit together for an hour and a half in a concert hall and have this be something that is meditated on.”
The project has received national attention from the media, which has taken him and his collaborators by surprise. After the Boston production, he’s not sure what will happen next. But it is possible that “HackPolitik” might end up in New York in 2014.
View a preview of “HackPolitik” at the Breaking Glass Festival.