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.”