Choreography and computers

The Washington Post’s dance critic Sarah Kaufman takes a look back at the evolution of dance and technology through two of its spearheads: Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stoppiello, the founders of Troika Ranch, a performance group that merges electronic media and dance. Coniglio reflects on “Loopdiver,” their 2009 piece that serves as inspiration for their current work in progress, “Swarm.” (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic March 15, 2013

In a live performance, technology typically plays the role of fairy godmother, dressing up the stage with wondrous special effects. But it’s far more interesting when it plays God.

When technology is used to create the art, as opposed to simply jazz up the show, that’s where innovation lies.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

From pop concerts to ballet, high-tech effects are usually a secondary feature, worked into the design elements. You remember Beyonce interacting with an army of clones in her animation-enhanced performance of “Run the World (Girls)” at the 2011 Billboards Music Awards. That was a collaboration with media artist Kenzo Hakuta, a Sidwell Friends graduate who studied under video pioneer Nam June Paik.

Locally, French Canadian artist Liz Vandal brought state-of-the-art technology to bear on her fantastical computer-designed, custom-printed and laser-cut costumes for the Washington Ballet’s “Alice (in Wonderland)” last spring.

But what about using technology not just to enhance art, but to generate it? Putting a processing chip into the role of choreographer is a whole different matter. Now we’re getting at more complicated questions about how we relate to the digital world, about the balance of power between our machines and us.


(Neil Stevens For The Washington Post)

In fact, the tensions that drive science fiction are no longer theoretical — they’re real, at least on the experimental margins of the dance world.

In the case of Troika Ranch, a performance group that for nearly 20 years has merged electronic media, dance and theater, the latest bout of man vs. machine is being fought in two places at once: a garage in Portland, Ore., and a dance studio in Lausanne, Switzerland.

What the founders of Troika Ranch — choreographer Dawn Stoppiello, working in Portland, and composer Mark Coniglio, on a residency in Lausanne — hope to end up with is a performance that is entirely out of their control. It will be born onstage, spontaneously, through a two-step process involving cameras, computers and the abilities of specially trained dancers to react instantly to digital cues.

First, motion-sensor cameras in the theater will track the positions of individual audience members, then feed that information into a computer. The cameras, otherwise known as Kinect sensor devices, are the same ones that Microsoft sells for its Xbox 360 hands-free gaming system. You read that right: The equipment that lets Fruit Ninja aces whack watermelons with a sweep of the arm has galvanized the techies of postmodern dance. For around $150, experimental artists can get their hands on motion-capture capabilities similar to those that cost Hollywood millions to create, for example, Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

But back to the dance. The second step is more complicated: The audience images will trigger the software to choose snippets from a choreographed “graphic score,” and send them to the dancers onstage. They won’t know what sequence will come to them, or how many times they might have to repeat it, or at what speed. But their job will be to perform the score perfectly and without delay.

“It’s impossible, of course,” says Coniglio, “and that’s where I believe something interesting will happen.”

How will the dancers get the computer signals? Stoppiello and Coniglio are experimenting with head-mounted video screens or multimedia eyeglasses. As the dancers perform what Stoppiello calls “little atomic sequences of movement” in whatever order the devices tell them to, they, in effect, will become human iPod shuffles.


Poster for Troika Ranch's ”loopdiver.” (Jeffrey Bane/Jeffrey Bane)

The work, which Stoppiello and Coniglio aim to finish this year, is tentatively titled “Swarm.” Picture it as full-body gaming meets “virtual theater” glasses, plus a sophisticated hokey-pokey. Danced on the fly.

The new movements

What inspires Stoppiello and Coniglio is this: Technology is changing our habits, perhaps even our thinking — but most fundamentally, our bodies.

People no longer simply walk down the street. They walk while fiddling with their cell phones, “so their head is dropped down and they’re walking without looking up, a start-stop kind of thing,” says Stoppiello, 46, speaking — by cell phone, of course — from Portland. “The touch-screen physicality, that pinch and spread of the fingers, these gestures we do now that we didn’t use to do: It’s just like a vocabulary.”

She and Coniglio, 52, have been investigating the body’s relationship to technology since 1989, when they were students at the California Institute of the Arts. They formed Troika Ranch when they moved to New York in 1994. Formerly married, their artistic partnership continues. (True technophiles, they collaborate via Skype if they can’t meet in person.)

In their early works, the body was central and digital media had a supporting role. To make this easier, Coniglio created the interactive performance software Isadora, named for modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, which makes it possible to create and layer video and sound in real time. Since he began selling the program in 2003, thousands of artists have used it, he says, including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Wooster Group, choreographer Bebe Miller and, most recently, director Francis Ford Coppola, with whom Coniglio has consulted for an interactive film.

But in 2007, with a piece called “loopdiver,” “we completely changed the media-body relationship,” says Stoppiello. “I had been watching videotape of myself being looped over and over, rehearsing, because I was using snippets of tape to teach how to use Isadora,” and she started to wonder: Could she learn how to perform those endlessly repeating sections — live?

She and Coniglio created a five-minute performance, with choreography, lighting and music, and programmed the elements into Isadora. The software created loops of each element, stretching the performance to nearly an hour. Stoppiello and Coniglio showed the looped choreography to their dancers and told them to learn it — to replicate some 3,000 edits that the computer had made to the original flow of the dance.

The result: Dancers who stuttered and shook like animated GIFs of themselves, who in their slow, halting progress from one set of steps to another looked like they were trapped in a machine. “What you saw onstage,” says Coniglio, speaking via Skype from a studio in Lausanne, “was the computer process in their body.”

“ ‘Loopdiver’ was all about the edit as an idea,” says Stoppiello. “An edit can exist in video, but not in the body. We can’t move from Point A to Point B without a transition and in zero time. But video and sound does it all the time. We’ve accepted the edit as just a part of life, but we never think about the fact that it’s a lie. It’s a behavior that humans cannot do.”

Audience members often told her afterward that they empathized with the struggling performers.

“Loopdiver,” Stoppiello says, emphasized the fact “that all of our technologies, all the rhythms of those machines, have changed us. They’ve changed our physicality and how we move in the world and our relationship with time.

“That’s why I want to do this: There’s more to discover in the world,” she continues. “I want to use the computer to change how I choreograph. So that it intervenes in my process, and it doesn’t let me just do what spills out of my head. Something I do with the computer disrupts that flow and causes me to do something I wouldn’t do of my own accord.”

Longtime followers of modern dance may recognize the ghost of Merce Cunningham in those comments. Cunningham, the revered dance experimenter who died in 2009 at 90, helped develop software in the late 1980s that allowed him to program digital stick figures to dance his steps. The software, originally called LifeForms, could also randomly reorder the steps. What Cunningham liked about asking the computer to shuffle his steps — similar to the “chance operations” he had used for years by flipping coins or rolling dice to rearrange sections of a dance — was that these means let him move beyond his own self-expression. Letting go of control, he believed, brought him closer to something spiritual.

“The feeling I have when I compose in this way is that I am in touch with a natural resource far greater than my own personal inventiveness could ever be,” Cunningham once wrote. “Much more universally human than the particular habits of my own practice.”

Coniglio and Stoppiello also speak of feeling a profound human connection through their use of machinery, but where their work departs from Cunningham’s, they say, is that they are granting even more power to the computer.

“If you adopt a rigorous computer process — an inhuman process — into the work,” says Coniglio, “then you have to make the work in a different way.”

This has opened the door to that hard-to-find place in any art form: a new frontier.

The garage sessions

The Troika Ranch founders can go on and on about databases and lumens, and about Isadora and how it interfaces with another software program called NI Mate, and about how some mix can make all their interactive dreams come true.

But what does that have to do with any of us real folks?

Part of the answer lies in Stoppiello’s garage. That’s where she hosts an occasional “salon du garage,” as she calls it, jokingly. She has been experimenting there with “Swarm.” This December, as part of a master’s degree program she is pursuing at George Washington University (it’s called “low-residency,” and she often communicates with instructors via Skype), she staged a performance that went like this: First, she cut a couple dozen pictures out of magazines, and with a partner, created a movement response to each picture. Then she brought in audience members, and told them to hang the pictures in whatever order they wanted on a clothesline that was strung around a square taped-off space on the floor.

“They could change the pictures as much as they wanted or not at all,” says Stoppiello. She and the other dancer stood inside the square, and whatever picture was hung in front of them triggered their movement. Part of the game was seeing when the audience would figure out that the pictures they selected had an impact on the moves they saw. “Some people picked up on it really quickly, other people had no idea.”

That’s key. For all their use of technology, Stoppiello and Coniglio are most interested in what it reveals about our humanity. “Loopdiver,” which was performed in small venues in Chicago, a few other U.S. cities and Berlin between 2009 and 2010, was at its core an intimate experience for both audience and dancers. (Troika Ranch will revive it this June in Moscow.)

“You had to see it very close up for it to have any meaning, and being that close to the audience was very moving,” says Stoppiello.

That experience made her crave even more audience interaction, which prompted her to imagine how spectators’ behavior, captured by the Kinect cameras, could trigger the way the dancers move in “Swarm.”

“Is it possible to get the audience to start out knowing nothing, and will they ever make an association with their behavior and the results around them?” she asks. “We’re very curious.”

“The story is always in the people,” says Coniglio, echoing her thoughts from an ocean away. “Always.

“I love computers; they are the clay that I build pots with,” he continues. “But art is still about stories, and people are really good at that.”

Related:

Making music through movement

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