Thom Yorke in Anima

Thom Yorke Channels Buster Keaton in New Dance Film Anima, Now on Netflix

Tunneling through the labyrinth of Prague's underground transport system, a subway car is packed full of dreamy-eyed commuters. Drifting between states of sleep and consciousness, the somber-clad workers perform a mechanical dance of nodding heads and drooping shoulders.

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who executes the same choreography as his fellow travelers, struggles to make a connection with a female passenger danced by Dajana Roncione (Yorke's partner in real life).

The opening images of the new short film Anima, now on Netflix, are playful yet dystopian, accompanied by a soundtrack of electro beats and Yorke's dronelike vocals that are sourced from three songs on his latest solo album of the same name. But there are no vain attempts to link the singer to his music by mouthing the words on camera. Instead, he portrays an unnamed protagonist in a loosely woven narrative performed through dance.

Inspired by silent cinema, Anima recalls an era when screen actors were strongly encouraged to hone their dance skills for stories told through the body.

Yorke is no stranger to dancing on screen. His previous collaborators include Britain's Wayne McGregor, who crafted the singer's moves for music videos "Lotus Flower" and "Ingenue."

After meeting Franco-Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet on the set of the horror remake Suspiria, Yorke invited the dance artist to create 15 minutes of uninterrupted choreography for Anima. Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice, Boogie Nights), who has made music videos with Yorke in the past, signed on to direct.

There is no shortage of media buzz surrounding the film. Some reviews laud its originality, others dismiss it as a glorified music video. In both cases, most film and music critics seem oblivious to the fact that dance film is currently a robust area of creative exploration, with origins that date back to cinema's invention at the end of the 19th century.

Not only did dance feature prominently in the first films screened on both sides of the Atlantic, many of the industry's early stars are remembered for their signature moves. Think Charlie Chaplin's iconic walk or Buster Keaton's acrobatic falls. These performers, although long gone, continue to garner sympathy and inspire fits of laughter today.

While on set, Anderson was often heard yelling "More Keaton!" He wanted Yorke to channel the comedian, who mastered the art of physical timing on vaudeville before breaking into motion pictures.

While Yorke is known for his angsty musical performances, audiences may be surprised to see the emotional range and ease of motion that the singer brings to Anima as its light-hearted romantic hero.

Taking another page from the silent cinema playbook, Jalet's site-specific choreography transforms simple objects and everyday actions into humorous choreographic material. When Yorke's character notices that his fellow passenger has left her lunch box behind, he attempts to catch up with her and return it. The effort fails due to an uncooperative subway turnstile. Unlike the other travelers who glide through the barrier with ease, Yorke is forced to take extreme measures by leaping over the turnstile headfirst.

There's a famous moment in Steamboat Bill (1928) when Bustor Keaton is caught in a wind storm and his body is tilted at an extreme angle while moving through space. This same slanted diagonal is echoed in Anima when Yorke and the cast dance atop a large slope, bodies advancing at gravity-defying angles.

Steamboat Bill

Just like Keaton, Yorke performs these scenes with a deadpan expression, a naivety that inspires laughter, but not of the mean-spirited variety. All the humorous hardships that we witness result in feelings of satisfaction when Yorke and Roncione finally connect on the streets of Prague at night. In a final pas de deux, the pair fold in and out of each another's arms while traveling forward. When Yorke wakes up alone moments later, it is all the more bittersweet.

This is the enduring charm of silent movies. Movement is imbued with meaning but remains universal. In a film industry that has steadily become more language driven over the years, dance films and silent cinema's legacy offer an alternative with international appeal.

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Paul Liu, Courtesy Pilobolus

Could Augmented Reality Change How We Watch Dance?

Imagine being able to digitally project the world's greatest dancers into your home, and observe them performing virtually, in three dimensions, atop a living room table. Such is the potential of a new class of augmented reality (AR) technologies like the "Magic Leap," a headset that allows users to superimpose digital media atop their seen reality, innovatively combining recorded dance with real space.

Director and founder of the MAP Design Lab Melissa Painter recently collaborated with Pilobolus to produce a bonkers AR choreography called "YouDanceWeDance." This project, which began its life on the Magic Leap, allows viewers to use their smartphones to observe (from any angle, and anywhere) Pilobolus dancers moving according to selectable emotional themes.

What is your dance background?

Creative—not competitive—movement practices have always been where I lived. When I was little (in Northern California, back in the hippie days) my dance classes had provocations like, "Stand tall, like a tree" or, "Imagine that you're a frog, and folk dancing."

Today, my movement practice is yoga, and I feel like I'm still hearing the "stand like a tree" part. I also studied Graham technique, improvisation and Alexander techniques. While I was never a strong performer, I am a strong enthusiast.

Tell us about your collaboration with Pilobolus.

Pilobolus and MAP started playing together, doing motion capture and dreaming up augmented and virtual reality interpretations of their work over a year ago. I love their creative process, the emotional accessibility of their work, and how adventurous the artistic directors Matt Kent and Renee Jaworski are. (now also available for smartphones) is a good thing for people during this weird moment where everyone is stuck at home. We have a vision that it will foster a different kind of relationship between audiences and theater performance over time.

Next up, it will be part of the "Art Safari" they are staging in their (safely socially distanced) Five Senses Festival this summer (July 31-Aug 2) in Washington Depot, Connecticut. We really made this with kids and families in mind, and I hope people enjoy it. It basically reminds you to move your own body!

How has augmented reality and motion capture changed your view on what choreography is?

For me, augmented and virtual reality have honed my eye, and given me an opportunity to spend additional time with phrases in the context of motion capture. It's similar to how a dancer might live with movement in their body. It provides an opportunity to revisit live movements spatially, instead of through a flat YouTube video or even on a proscenium stage. It's about being able to look at it giant, and then look at it tiny, and from all angles. I adore it. I've always wanted people to view dance with the feeling of exhilaration and joy I've had as a watcher in the rehearsal studio.

Movement, to me, is the most beautiful, direct and instinctual form of human communication. I believe motion capture gets at the essence of who we are in a way that is elegant, accessible and impactful. Especially in this moment when so many people forget that their body is a beautiful, creative tool.

If COVID keeps theaters closed for the foreseeable future, might AR maintain a sense of dancerly liveness in performance?

Currently, live performance spaces being shuttered, it's important to think of ways that spatial computing, three-dimensional capture and immersive presentations can support the work of creators who work with bodies. We can explore potential new audiences and performance opportunities right now.

Once upon a time, there was less of a distinct line between dancers and watchers. I still believe that can be the case, and that it's good for non-experts to have as many chances to be inspired by experts as to move their own bodies.

Are there things that folks can do at home to explore in this new, virtual choreographic horizon?

Dance is one of the most loved, watched and shared forms of social media content that there is. So, share dance! I'm always up for more making and doing and moving, whether it's captured or not. There are emergent forms of dimensional capture and there are also off-the-shelf ways to turn flat videos spatial. They're not perfect, but they're getting better and better.

Who are some other people working in this space that you think Dance Magazine’s readers should know about?

There is a world of immersive makers out there. The media is ripe for it, and as creative technologists, we know that it is dancers and choreographers who are the collaborators we need as we create experiences and technologies of the future that honor embodiment. Some who come to mind are Heidi Bosivert, Michelle Ellsworth, Christine Marie and Gilles Jobin.

How can dancers prepare for this sort of work in the future?

Having inventive improvisational and collaborative skills is a good start. That's part of why Pilobolus translates so beautifully to virtual space. Motion capture can be used in as many ways as there are movers. There's no prescribed form. We have had lots of situations when people are doing complex partnerings, but someone's data for their head ends up attached to someone else's knee. You learn to work through!