FrenetiCore on Steampunk

By Nichelle Suzanne

Photo by Anthony Rathbun

Photo by Anthony Rathbun

In the vast category of science-fiction subgenres, steampunk has been a little engine that could, chugging its way into mainstream pop culture for decades. March 27 it makes its way onto the Frenetic Theater stage as FrenetiCore presents Dancing with the Machine, a retro-futuristic narrative complete with steam-powered machines, other-worldly creatures, and unruly rebels revolting against tyranny.

The imaginations of FrenetiCore’s artistic director, Rebecca French and her collaborators became focused on a steampunk-inspired, full-length show last August when the company adopted a steampunk theme for their annual Apocalypse Ball fundraiser.

“We all had a lot of fun with the futuristic-technology-meets-Victorian fashion aesthetic of the steampunk genre,” explains French. At the suggestion of a friend, The Difference Engine, a triple concerto by Austin-based composer, Graham Reynolds, was selected as the musical backdrop for their Spring 2015 performance.

But they needed a story.

“The initial idea was to get permission to the rights of a well-known story,” explains FrenetiCore company member and Dancing with the Machine author, Adam Castaneda. “Then, one day I received a text from Rebecca asking if I’d be interesting in creating the narrative and, of course, I said yes.”

Castaneda’s name is frequently found in the arts feature bylines of Houston Press and here at Dance Source Houston. However, in college he won the University of Houston’s fiction prize for his first short story and went on to write a fictional collection of stories for his undergraduate thesis. Though he didn’t have much knowledge of the steampunk literary genre before beginning this project with FrenetiCore, he was excited to familiarize himself with its tropes and archetypes to create a brand new work.

Dancing with the Machine has been a return to story writing for me, and it definitely reflects my concerns as a reader and theater-goer,” says Castaneda. “I’ve always been more attracted to character-driven work as opposed to plot-oriented work, and I think this dance show is more focused on the characters and the people that populate this world than the action itself.”

Photo by Anthony Rathbun.

Photo by Anthony Rathbun.

At the center of the Dancing with the Machine narrative is heroine, Ada (danced by Lauren Burke) who is driven by the love she has for her brother, Abel, and the blossoming romance she has with Jake as she overcomes obstacles to rid her world of unjust oppression.

“I am most struck by Ada’s determination,” Burke says of her character. “She has a burden and a vision and she doesn’t relent until she accomplishes what is placed on her heart. She doesn’t always know the next step, and she often feels small and insignificant but her drive to do what she feels called to do compels her.”

Audio narration of Castaneda’s story will help to flesh out scenes and provide context for the dances and characters. But beyond telling a story, FrenetiCore plans to transport the audience to an underground speakeasy, a family’s home library hiding illegal technology, and a rebel force hideout. A team of collaborators will bring the stylized future of Dancing with the Machine to life. Ashley Horn exercises her infatigable imagination to costume a cast of thirteen dancers portraying various characters and sects of the society Castaneda, who dances in the work, has envisioned. Horn’s contributions also include original film that, according to French, explore abstract concepts and further develop the central characters. Illuminating this world is Tiffany Schrepferman, who will give a nod to gaslight technology using modern light sources.

Beyond fiction and fantasy entertainment, steampunk has become a movement and lifestyle for some. It has inspired and influenced fashion, music, and even engineering. In this digital age, it resonates and, while Dancing with the Machine certainly qualifies as other-worldly, French explains how the story applies to our present age.

“There are always people who want to give up humanity’s evolutionary gains and hard-won civil liberties to revert back to some idealized past era. And there are those who blindly fear technology, seeing each scientific advancement as a threat to humankind’s freedom and individuality,” comments French. “For those people, and for all of us, this show presents a future that triumphs over fear and oppression. Even though it takes place in the future-past world of the steampunk genre, Dancing with the Machine inspires the hero in us all to create the world we want to live in right now.”

Dancing with the Machine premieres at Frenetic Theater March 27 and runs through April 4. For tickets and more information please visit www.freneticore.net.

In an alternate future, Nichelle Suzanne writes about dance using a computational device made of wood and brass gears, powered by steam. In this reality, she is a frequent contributor to Houston arts publications and her own dance education site, danceadvantage.net.

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