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Dance in the Panopticon: Surveillance and Freedom Battle in the Kuperman Brothers' Film

Dance as a form of liberation. The Kuperman Brothers, Jeff and Rick are the choreographers and directors of this piece, which explores surveillance and work. Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon comes to mind, as the characters interact within their space. Like Bentham postulates, workers or criminals will act according to the rules if they feel like they are being watched. Here, the Dancers/Workers rebel against the management that is symbolized in the CC cameras by dancing, fighting with one another and finally eliminating the camera all together. The music, produced by Arlen Hart and Ronald Bacardi is slightly cacophonic at times lending extra drama to what are already dramatic scenes. The film was shot inside a factory, a perfect place for a piece on worker surveillance. The dancers Zach Burke, Jeff Kuperman, Rick Kuperman, and Michel Issa Rubio all fullfull their roles well, not only as dancers but as illustrators of the struggle between those who are objects of surveillance and those who surveil.

Rules of the Game
Still from "Rules of the Game"

What does your collaboration look like?  What do you each bring to a piece? 

We work very closely together, from the beginning to the end of a process. Even if one of us is the point person on a particular project and drives its development, we’ll reconvene often and shape the piece together. If we had to pinpoint our relative roles, maybe Jeff tends to find the conflicts and twists in the piece while Rick tends to find structure and make sure the audience isn’t left out in the cold. We’re also not afraid to be blunt with each other, so we have a strong litmus test of how much heart, truly, the other is putting in. In rehearsal, we’re doing a better job of sparing our artists and performers from brotherly tiffs, but those moments are often the most productive (if not entertaining) parts of the process because from conflict comes synthesis.

You were dancers before filmmakers. What has film added to your understanding of dance and choreography? How would you compare choreography for film and for stage?

When choreographing for film, you lose, in a sense, a feeling of immediacy, of sharing a space with a physical person, of danger. But cinema affords a whole new set of tools: a moving perspective (a choreography of the camera), a new relationship to rhythm in the editing room, and, of course, an ENTIRE formal grammar and set of conventions that a much wider audience – compared with smaller audiences of dance-goers – understands intimately and unconsciously. With cinema, you’re able to direct audience focus and so use the body in a way that might get lost in the proverbial wide-shot that is watching a staged performance. Facial expressions, twitches, body language, specific aspects of a larger movement all take on a new potency. And conversely, our stage pieces today often incorporate what we’ve learned from film, trying to marry the irreplaceable feeling of watching something live with cinematic conventions. The whole fun is seeing how those conventions (jump cuts, speed ramps, close ups, time lapses, etc.) are translated to and augmented by performers using them in shared space and in real time. 

Rules of the Game
Still from "Rules of the Game"

What brought you to make a film inspired by Bentham’s panopticon, today?

Well, Jeff had been reading a ton of Russian literature dealing with surveillance and the totalitarian state and Rick had been pondering the Prisoner’s Dilemma and how cooperative relationships might form, even under duress. We made a stage piece called "Tit for Tat," which was well received, and we thought we might put it to rest. But the more we thought on the theme, the more obviously it applied to current trends, especially when viewed through the lens of the Snowden controversy. We also had access to the factory space, which ultimately made the struggle more immediate than if we had tried to somehow digitize the concept (and also, that space was just a lot of fun to explore).

Have you ever had to liberate yourself? How did you do it?

Not getting the grant, not making the audition cut, getting rejected, being passed up, all of those things suck, sure, and have happened often and will continue to happen, but the fear of not ever going for it sucks even more.

Sure. Self-doubt and insecurity are immensely limiting. Fear of going out on a limb or trying something new artistically, especially if you have a formula that you know works, is a constant struggle. We’re both undeniably lucky to have the support system that we do, and to have had an upbringing in which failure and uncertainty were not to be feared but to be expected as an inevitable part of life. Not getting the grant, not making the audition cut, getting rejected, being passed up, all of those things suck, sure, and have happened often and will continue to happen, but the fear of not ever going for it sucks even more. We’re fortunate to be going into an uncertain career as unshakeable partners, but if not for the other, the voice of a more stable or “useful” life is one that whispers in our ears at different times. Perhaps it’s something to be liberated from. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Your works are particularly narrative driven. What sorts of stories are you seeing now? 

Yes, we love stories. And so does everyone. Sometimes it’s fun to think about why stories are so ubiquitous, why humans (even when they’re dreaming) can’t seem to get enough of story (films, TV, radio, books, dance…). Much smarter people than us have hypothesized that stories are the foundation of culture. So, this might sound academic, but stories we love tend to grapple with our place in this life, and recently they’ve had an absurdist bend where characters must face the chaotic, seemingly-meaningless world in which we live. We’ve worked on stories where a princess can’t stop herself from literally floating off the ground, an hyper-rational comedian tries to reason his way out of mental illness, a burlesque dancer cooks full course meals in her sleep, and two brothers ruin each other by trying to help the other (in fact, one ends up eating the other). 

  • We’re starting work on a new story that’ll be a full-length work. 
Rules of the Game
Still from "Rules of the Game"

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