Voyager: A Journey into Our Outer Spaces
A Choreographic and Scholarly Exploration by Lizzie Leopold
In 1977, NASA launched two Voyager spacecrafts, each affixed with a gold-coated copper phonograph record as a “message to possible extraterrestrial civilizations.” Each record contained 90 minutes of “the world’s greatest music,” an audio essay entitled “The Sounds of Earth,” and greetings in nearly 60 human languages (and one whale language). Philosopher Carl Sagan sat at the helm of this project. And along with a committee of his peers, they chose which audio and visual pieces would best explicate all of humanity to any alien life forms that might encounter the spacecrafts and decipher the message.
Thirty-one years later, in 2008, the Voyager spacecrafts escaped our solar system entirely, only the third and fourth spacecrafts to ever do so. This record and its contents continue to travel farther and farther from Earth, carrying with it a beauty and desperation of a moment in time specific to the early fall of 1977, yet eternally reflecting on human kind. This time capsuling is a wonderfully rich project of capturing the ephemeral and stopping the impossible. Catching the rotating of days and inscribing them upon a simple record already speaks to the passage of time, as the record is a technology that is hauntingly obsolete to our twenty-first century mentalities. It is 33 years after its launch and two years after its disappearance that I begin to take on The Voyager’s Golden Record as choreographic exploration. Just as Carl Sagan used audio and visual technologies to encounter his questions, I use dance.
I enter this project deeply indebted to the work of Mr. Sagan and also to scholar Peggy Phalen. In Phalen’s seminal work, _Unmarked: The Politics of Performance_, she argues quite convincingly that the ontology of performance is its ephemerality. It only becomes its self “through its disappearance.” The documentation of dance, whether it be in words, video or photograph is a completely separate entity from the dance itself. The performance is gone as soon as it exists. The intersection and opposition of Sagan’s concrete effort to time capsule and Phalen’s insistence on performative ephemerality is what has drawn me to create this dance piece. These two seemingly divergent paths travel back and forth effortlessly, crisscrossing and intertwining to create new ideas, new questions and beautiful shapes and colors – it is already a dance before I insert myself into the equation. That is my role as choreographer, to arrange and decipher what has been there all along.
The other large conversation that continues to reappear as a part of the choreographic process is that of translation, language and understanding. Modern dance is so often accused of being hard to understand. “What does it mean?” As an English speaker with a working knowledge of French and Spanish, I find myself asking that very question while listening to all of the various tracks on the Golden Record. And further so, it is hard to believe that Carl Sagan assumed alien life forms would understand any of the Earth’s 60+ languages that are represented on the record. With this assumption and being a mover by trade, translation and understanding become even greater challenges for the body. The Record itself was without physical body; it is instead detached voice and representative photograph. I feel the urgency of the present, physical body in my choreographic understanding of this project.
Oddly enough, I find myself in the role that Sagan imagined for far off extraterrestrial life forms – stumbling upon his Golden Record and working to translate his compilation and understand humanity. Of course, I am not aided by the seemingly unbiased distancing that Sagan’s imagined aliens would be able to use to their advantage. Regardless, I am submerged, body and mind, in these inextricable questions of time, translation, future and perspective – pressing my physical, present body against his time capsule, that which has long since left our concept of “here.”
The dance work, Voyager, takes the 90+ minutes of audio and turns it into an hour-long evening-length work. The music ranges from Chuck Berry to Beethoven, from Senegalese drumming to Peruvian wedding chants. Much like the record, the choreography jumps amidst these seemingly disparate places and adventures the terrain between, feeling both the confusion and delight in the liminal spaces. There are five dancers and a mostly bare stage. The wings – traditionally, long, black fabric pieces hung at regular intervals along the two sides of the space to delineate entrances and exits and to hide lighting instruments – will be replaced by minimal and thematic set pieces. The most upstage wing will be a bead curtain, circa the 1960’s, hung across the entire back of the stage. The second and middle wing will be a plush, deep red velvet curtain, pulled back and draped with gold tassels. The farthest downstage wing will be hung, across the front of the proscenium, with white venetian blinds. These three exaggerated wings will help to turn a simple, barren, empty stage into a time machine. Lighting design, set design and choreography will collaborate to turn simple wall hangings into countless places, times and moods.
Our goal is not to find all the answers, but rather to offer our understandings and create new conversations. The rich history, philosophy and incredible musical offerings of Carl Sagan’s and NASA’s Golden Record already offer a wonderful depth and insight into the aforementioned questions. My Voyager will invite choreographic, embodied research into a conversation that has been long since separated from our physical selves.
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