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.
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.