'Panopticon' is a little bit X-Files, a little bit Handmaid’s Tale, and a lot Paradise Lost

For “Panopticon,” an immersive evening-length performance at Studio5, an audience of about 40 first gathered in the lounge at Dance Center Evanston, the north suburban music and dance venue’s next-door neighbor. It’s the dance studio where former Evanstonian Annie Arnoult used to teach, so it felt fitting that this is where the Midwest premiere of her Houston-based company, Open Dance Project, would begin.

There are clear parallels between Open Dance Project and Striding Lion Performance Group, the company Arnoult founded and ran in Chicago before relocating to Houston. Character-driven narratives, imaginative content, solid dance composition and seamless integration of text are a given in any Arnoult work, but it’s not as though she took a formula that worked in Chicago and simply implemented it somewhere else. There is something distinctly Houstonian about “Panopticon,” which offers a refreshing injection of something a bit different to the mélange of dance shows out there this month.

A panopticon is a style of architecture developed by 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham as an optimal model for penal institutions to maintain maximal oversight and control of the prison population—the idea being, a rotunda-styled building can be watched by a single security guard observing inmates from above, with no knowledge as to when they’re being watched. In so doing, posits Bentham, inmates will self-regulate their behavior.

Insert modern-day Big Brother metaphor here. In the dance “Panopticon,” Arnoult envisions a dystopian society, set in 2151 after a government merger with a mega-corporation called Unicorps. In this imagined future, citizens are sorted according to class and ability, with test-tube babies ideally suited for jobs that serve a supposedly ideal, and wholly corporeal society. Emotions are stripped away in the incubator, bodies molded for what makes them most useful. The idea is that a comfortable and maximally productive society (strictly monitored by corporate overlords, of course) avoids all the problems of intimacy, jealousy, monogamy and prohibition; pleasure, therefore, is condoned. In fact, the success of such a place hinges on its citizens yielding to hedonist desires, so long as they aren’t directed toward one particular person.

As one might guess, there are cracks in the system, since humans have a way of veering off course. So the epicenter of “Panopticon” is the story of two nameless characters who fall in love, risking retaliation, reassignment and expulsion for muddying this supposedly utopian world with attachment. 

But how, one might wonder, is all this accomplished through dance? As guests filed into a totally transformed Studio5 from DCE’s lounge, we were ushered into a tight space, invited to watch this society at work while a video host introduced us to the laws of the land. As spectators of this curious world, a changing series of curtains and dividers (a simply brilliant set design by Ryan McGettigan) guide us through portioned off spaces as a tightly controlled series of events unfolds. We are invited to explore the space as we wish, provided we stay out of the dancers’ ways.

Though text and video are probably unavoidable in such a complicated plot, a lot is accomplished through gestures and dance phrases, not to mention the crisply-tailored silver-toned costumes (by Ashley Horn Nott); sirens and driving pulses from sound designer Bryan Ealey; and cool, often clinical lighting (by David J Deveau). A militaristic petite allegro is used as training exercises, angular walking patterns, regimented group work and submissive, swallowing gestures starkly contrast the fool-hardy, drunken world of “The Feely Club,” where citizens can let loose, or the lugubrious, clinical lab called “The Hatchery,” where mind-control and incubation take place.

I wouldn’t say love wins, exactly, though for a brief time, the soulmates evade notice, guiding us through a treasure trove of nostalgia like maps, books, Trivial Pursuit game cards, stamps and a pencil sharpener—remember, it’s 2151, so these represent what chamber pots and butter churns mean to us—to a hidden vista dressed up like the Garden of Eden. The pair recites lines from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” blithefully cosseting atop a green shag carpet, under an abstraction of the Tree of Life and beside very literal images of Adam and Eve.

It can’t last, of course, because someone is always watching. Violent swirls of fight choreography and beleaguering dance phrases are the lovers’ punishment, ultimately destined to a sort of deactivation and a trip back to the lab, to try and again instill order among the inherently orderless.

“Panopticon” takes a bit too long to get here. After standing for nearly an hour and a half, I’d honestly stopped rooting for this story’s protagonists, but I couldn’t help but think it was also quite worth it. A proscenium “Panopticon” would surely have fallen flat. I can even imagine, from a distance, how its Old Testament undertones could easily have felt hokey. But being right up in there, literally inches from the performers, not knowing when or where to look or what mysteries lay around each corner—I can’t really imagine a better example of doing immersive dance theater right.