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Chicago Tribune Preview of “The Fifth”

The Seldoms explore the dark web in Philip Elson’s ‘The Fifth’

By Laura Molzahn
October 4, 2016

During the recent presidential debate, candidates were asked specifically about cyberattacks. Because when it comes to national security, the battlefield is no longer just about troops and boots, it’s about cyber recruiting, reconnaissance and warfare — what’s been called the fifth domain of war, after land, sea, air and space. It’s a domain splintered by legal, ethical and political controversy (think Edward Snowden) and driven at the current breakneck speed of technological change.

It doesn’t seem a likely area of exploration for dance, yet Philip Elson of the Seldoms forges bravely ahead in a new evening-length dance work, “The Fifth,” Oct. 13-15 at the Dance Center of Columbia College. Inspired by Seldoms artistic director Carrie Hanson, with whom he’s danced for eight years, Elson aims “to use dance as an investigative, journalistic tool,” he says, “not just to represent an idea but to learn more about it and about what people’s connection is to that issue.”

Long fascinated by technology, Elson worked at the Genius Bar at the Apple store in Old Orchard for five years. But his interest recently has been “more and more piqued,” he says, by “whistle-blowers or hackers — people acting as cyber vigilantes, doing what they perceive to be the right thing, even if it causes harm or is illegal. Some people look at them as heroes, and some villainize them for treason.”

For “The Fifth,” Elson chose to focus on “people inside the covert world,” he says, the world used by those with virtual private networks, or VPNs, on the dark web. Neither good nor bad in itself, it simply protects users’ privacy — in theory, at least — and so can be employed for whistle-blowing as well as criminal activity.

As an example of the moral arena this represents, Elson brings up the first dark-net black market, Silk Road, which launched in 2011. “It was a marketplace for all sorts of illegal activities, like weapon sales, drug sales, child pornography, you name it.” In 2013, the FBI used covert tactics to “take it down,” Elson says, “masking themselves as one of the people” on it. (Adding to the moral conundrum, when founder-owner Ross Ulbricht was convicted on charges that included money laundering and narcotics trafficking, he claimed he’d only been following his libertarian ideals.)

The six dancers of “The Fifth” literally mask themselves at times, signifying the protection and empowerment of those who erase their online identities. But again, masking in itself is neither good nor bad. “There’s potential for it to swing both ways,” Elson says. He wanted to explore the spectrum of the covert internet experience, so at some points his characters “may seem strong, at some they’ll seem weak.”

Unlike other recent Seldoms works, “The Fifth” has no performers speaking, though there will be voice-over texts. Laura J. Wiley’s prerecorded video will be largely abstract, at times picturing internet connectivity; live video feeds will be digitally manipulated and projected, at times multiplying the onstage performers. “There are thousands if not millions of people around the world who are able to act secretly,” Elson says. “And there’s a lot of power in a person feeling that kind of immunity.”

The choreography, Elson says, is sometimes almost pantomimic, sometimes gestural, but most often abstract, representing physical states like sadness, hyperawareness, paranoia. He’s also devised “some complex interactions between dancers that are charged, almost as if these were agents working together — or apart from each other.”

Elson has put a lot of time and effort into “The Fifth,” which has gone through various iterations over more than a year. It was the first work to get a Dance Center production residency, which Elson says was invaluable. “It’s really hard, when you’re in the studio, to imagine to the fullest the big picture, especially when you’re working with so many tech elements: set pieces, props, lighting, video.”

Because he’s performing in the piece, Elson also felt the need for outside eyes. So after the residency — which gave him four days “to build the show as it was at that time,” in early August — he invited “a small group of close peers to take a look at it and offer their feedback,” he says. “That was a turning point, because it made me realize that I needed to do a 180. Yeah, uh-huh: That was a really scary thing. But I had to rethink what I was doing, why I was doing it, and what people were actually seeing and feeling.”

In the two months since, “The Fifth” has undergone a “large reconstruction,” Elson says. While the August showing was split into two acts, one set in the virtual and the other in the real world, “The Fifth” is now a single act. Elson credits choreographer Joanna Rosenthal, who came in for the viewing, with suggesting that he “put everything in a blender, mix it up a bit. I had to see how the two halves could relate more. I’d spent so much time in the virtual world that we were losing human presence. We needed to learn more about people — their actions, their emotions, what drives them.”

Elson, 30, calls his show “a rare opportunity that many young dance makers just don’t get,” adding that both Hanson and Dance Center Presenting Series director Bonnie Brooks are “taking a very big leap, making a big investment. As thrilling as that is and as happy as I am, for me there are a lot of stakes.”