CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

DDoS as dance: Anonymous hits the ballet

A new multimedia ballet, "HackPolitik," fuses jarring, angular movements with electroacoustic music and video projection to interpret the activities of hacker collective Anonymous.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
3 min read

Nir Arieli

Hacker collective Anonymous is going to the ballet. Take that in; it's not often you'll see Anonymous and ballet in the same sentence.

The unusual pairing will take place November 15 and 16 at the Boston University Dance Theater, where the Juventas New Music Ensemble debuts "HackPolitik," a new contemporary ballet based on the hacktivist group's activities and personalities. The piece combines electroacoustic music, modern dance, and video projection to examine how the Internet impacts 21st century discourse and sometimes blurs the lines between activism and anarchy.

Instead of pastel tutus, expect to see dancers in black and white, with dramatic face paint that evokes Guy Fawkes masks. And erratic, sometimes militant movements instead of fluid pirouettes.

The sly and clever Topiary, one of the characters in "HackPolitik." Nir Arieli

How do hacks on Twitter and LinkedIn accounts translate to physical movement? Neither the dance nor the music is neatly representative of things like Web site defacements, distributed denial-of-service attacks, and data theft, though they do aim to capture the mood of cyber insurgency.

One scene, for example, opens with a soloist appearing to search for a way into something. Once she's successful, the rest of the dancers join her with a series of advancing movements directed at one point in space that's meant to represent the entity being attacked.

"The movement interprets the initial culture of Anonymous as a crass, chaotic, and immature world out of which particular personalities and goals emerge," choreographer Kate Ladenheim tells CNET.

"For example, in the opening of the piece, we created a phrase that we lovingly refer to as the 'f*@% you' phrase. There are 10 examples of immature gestures/f*@%-you hand motions that are abstracted to become full bodied and then traveled through space in various ways."

This was Ladenheim's take on trolling, memes, and the "all-around chaos of IRC and online message boards like 4chan."

The idea for "HackPolitik" came to Boston-based composer Peter Van Zandt Lane in late 2011, when some of Anonymous' more high-profile politically driven cyberattacks grabbed the spotlight.

Lane teaches a course at Brandeis University called "Protest and Propaganda in Music," but hadn't had much occasion to meld those interests with his creative work.

"The idea of a ballet based on the global hacktivist movement excited me, as it was a way I could potentially pull these three spheres together," he tells CNET.

The two-act piece touches, among other things, on the December 2010 distributed denial-of-service attack on PayPal. It was organized in response to PayPal halting donations to the online leaked-documents clearinghouse WikiLeaks.

Another of the ballet's 10 scenes references Anonymous' 2011 attack on HBGary Federal, a security firm trying to investigate the loosely organized global group.

"The music, on its own, says...disorder, absurdity, cohesion/collaboration, militaristic triumph, humiliation, betrayal, etc.," Lane says. "Choreography can connect these expressions a bit more concretely to the activities of Anonymous, but ultimately, the audience has to make connections themselves, between a generally abstract art form and the specific events that inspired them."

To create the ballet, Lane; Ladenheim, artistic director of NY-based contemporary dance company The People Movers; and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, artistic director of the Juventas New Music Ensemble, mined author Parmy Olson's writings on Anonymous, which closely examine the global activist movement.

Anonymous has supporters worldwide, as evidenced by this week's "Million Mask March" in cities from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Some pioneers of the hacktivist movement, however, have criticized Anonymous, saying its methods abridge free speech and hurt the cause.

But "HackPolitik," Lane insists, isn't about taking sides.

"For me," he says, "the piece is less about answers, and more about bringing up questions on how we emotionally and artistically are able to respond to the influence of technology on our society."