“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.”
Making music through movement