When Jocie Adams was a child, her father, a scientist, helped develop a gyroscopic flight system. The concept had a benevolent purpose: using small unmanned aircraft, operators could locate and disable landmines without jeopardizing human lives.
Years later, that technology would evolve to serve a more sinister application — the military program that has led to targeted killings by combat drones.
Adams, founder and leader of the Providence-based future-pop band Arc Iris, has spent a lot of time contemplating the good and evil of scientific progress. The trio’s latest project, their most ambitious to date, is a multimedia production that brings the inner workings of her restless mind to the stage. Combining the band’s dramatic music with videography and the contemporary dance theater of Providence’s HDC Dance Ensemble, “iTMRW” premieres this weekend at Oberon, the second stage of the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square.
Pronounced “I Tomorrow” and billed as a “sci-fi ballet,” the show unspools a color-saturated vision of the year 2080, in which a huge conglomerate provides citizens with every product they’ll ever need, including, for men, the “companion bot” of their dreams. From mechanical dancers wearing unsettling blank face masks to the disembodied narration of the android Jenny (actually Adams’s prerecorded voice, pitched down) and the constant barrage of sales offers made by a blue-haired pitchman on a video feed, the future looks synthetic and soulless. Still, like a rose through concrete, the human spirit won’t be suppressed.
“Science is such an important part of our existence, and yet there are hiccups all the time,” said Adams, shortly after a dress rehearsal at the Reliquarium, an artists’ work and performance space in an old warehouse outside Providence.
“Like a magic wand, we’ve created this thing — science — that does all these beautiful, brilliant things for humankind,” she continued. “As it becomes more powerful, more in touch with the human brain and the psyche — we’re seeing this already, there are algorithms all over the Internet — a lot of decision-making can be predicted.” Analytics that track virtually everything about you and can forecast how you’ll behave are scary, she says.
HDC’s Danielle Davidson choreographed the show after meeting Adams, who attended a dance event that featured Davidson and her troupe cofounders, Gisela Creus and Orlando Hernandez. That connection was established just two months ago.
“For me, it was kind of rock ‘n’ roll,” recalled Davidson, an assistant professor of dance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. “Can I make this happen — 90 minutes of dance for six people? I was so excited. It’s the kind of job I want to be up at night thinking about.”
She was especially intrigued by Adams’s themes.
“I’m super into making art commentary on misogyny, capitalism, and the apocalyptic world,” she said. “It’s all stuff I love making work about anyway.”
The idea for “iTMRW” grew out of a batch of songs Adams conceived while on a songwriters’ retreat in New Hampshire. (A former member of the indie folk band the Low Anthem, she continues to work from traditional song structures even as her music grows progressively more synthesizer-heavy.) The show’s evolution into a full-fledged theatrical production has occurred organically, with plenty of help from the dancers and other contributors, said drummer Ray Belli.
“We’re not qualified to know any of this through previous experience,” he said with a smile.
Belli grew up in the same part of New Jersey as Zach Tenorio-Miller, the band’s third member, whose keyboard skills have landed him touring gigs with Jon Anderson, one of the founding members of the rock group Yes. As teenagers, Tenorio-Miller and Belli attended one of the original School of Rock programs together, “before it became a massive corporation,” Belli said. They’ve been close ever since.
“We finish each other’s sentences,” said Tenorio-Miller, offering his bandmate a fist bump.
The dancers, including Creus, Hernandez, and four of HDC’s frequent collaborators, appear throughout the performance, weaving in and out of the space occupied by the three band members. Some dancers have an intuitive ability to embody ideas, Davidson said.
For “iTMRW,” she said, “I chose dancers I knew would also be good actors — people who could bring themselves into this world.” From the increasingly fluid, human-like movement of the android characters to a surprising solo tap dance, which Hernandez performs in platform soles, the choreography serves the story.
“We all talked a lot about what would happen if people weren’t so concerned about succeeding, having money, or likability,” Davidson explained. “If humans today could already recognize their worth, their value, their fullness intrinsically, without needing to have the right job, the right love life, the right dress, the right face.”
Arc Iris plan to release the songs from “iTMRW” as their next studio album, their fifth. In 2018, the band released two albums, “Icon of Ego” and a tribute to Joni Mitchell called “Foggy Lullaby.” They would also like to develop an extended residency for the show.
With Adams alternating between keyboards and electric guitar, the band plays an omnivorous mix of styles that features elements of glam, folk, funk, and contemporary pop. Trying to describe their sound, said Adams, is “super hard. We’re always, like, ‘Uh, it’s happening again — they’re asking us what we sound like.’ ” If the inquisitor is older (the band members all hover around 30), they might mention Mitchell or David Bowie as reference points. If he or she is younger, they’ll point to Björk or Dirty Projectors.
“We usually size up the person a little,” she said.
In the end, that’s really what “iTMRW” is about. Like a cautionary William Gibson tale set to a busy beat and a woman’s voice, the show attempts to find the soul of a human being in the artificial clutter of the near future.
ARC IRIS AND HDC DANCE ENSEMBLE: iTMRW
Jan. 25 at 8:30 p.m. and Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Cambridge. Tickets start at $20. americanrepertorytheater.org
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.