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Technology onstage


For Dawn Stoppiello, artistic director of Troika Ranch, a New York-based dance company, mapping out the choreography for her works involves a lot more tools than pencil and paper.

Collaborating with her artistic co-director Mark Coniglio, a software programmer turned music composer, turned "software composer." Troika Ranch has for 10 years delivered live dance performances that are as technologically rich as they are artistically sound.

Equally wired are compositions by Carol Hess and Doug Hamby, choreographers for the Phoenix Dance Company, in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Both groups are preparing to deliver plugged-in performances at UMBC.

As a digital dance theater company, Troika Ranch's work explores the tension among dance, music mood and emotion, Coniglio says. In its presentations, Troika Ranch explores how we can maintain our most human attributes - our emotions, our bodies, our passion - in a time of accelerating change and growing physical disconnection.

"In our work, we combine different forms of media because we believe each art form speaks to a viewer on a different level," Stoppiello says.

"Different art forms speak to different parts of your brain," Coniglio says. "In making a work with these elements you are activating all of the parts of the brain."

Both Troika Ranch and the Phoenix Dance Company have enlisted the use of motion and body sensors, live and prerecorded video images projected onstage, text and real-time video editing.

A work-in-progress version of Troika Ranch's latest composition, Surfaces, is scheduled to be performed Feb. 3-4 during the company's weeklong residency at UMBC. The abstract performance will explore the tension that often exists between what individuals present to the outside world and what they think and feel on the inside, Coniglio says.

The performance will include prerecorded slow-motion footage of interaction between dancers. The company used a camera that records at the speed of 1,000 frames per second for the footage. A standard speed for shooting video is 30 frames per second.

With the extreme slow-motion footage, "you get a deeper sense of how the body reacts to impact from another body," Stoppiello says.

In Doug Hamby's piece, Edgewater Park, audiences will find a large video monitor onstage rather than the empty space that other dance groups might start with. The monitor will display recordings of the live performance of the two onstage dancers whose movements are partially obscured from the audience's view by a row of evenly spaced curtains hung across the stage. During the performance, a video editor combines footage of prerecorded images of a carnival with the movements of the dancers on stage for display on the monitor.

Hamby says some audience members were frustrated by the setup at the premiere of the piece last summer at Dance Place in Washington. Some seats offered only a limited view or no view of the live performance.

But in this performance, no one gets the whole picture, not even Hamby. He does not know how the video editor will edit the live performance with the prerecorded images. And after the show, Hamby does not review the video.

Seeing the performance as edited video gets the audience involved more than if they simply see the performance live, says Hamby, whose work will be performed by Phoenix Feb. 11-14 at UMBC.

In the end, what audience members will take from the coming performance of Edgewater Park will depend as much as on their seat location as the instincts of the video editor, which will depend on the movements of the dancers, which again, are choreographed by Hamby.

While Hamby manages the collaborators for the performance, "[the technique also] teaches the artist to relinquish control and ego," Hamby says. "That's the fun of collaborating. No one owns the final product, and it can not be re-created separately."

Troika Ranch performances use technology to incorporate a similar collaborative approach between dancers' choreographed moves and the artistic elements sampled for the piece to uniquely affect the final outcome of each performance.

In Troika Ranch's Reine Rien, the company will use its signature interactive technology, the MidiDancer and Isadora, a hardware-and-software duo developed by Coniglio that allows the dancers to wirelessly control audio and visual elements in the performance.

With this sensory system, the performers strap small sensors to their wrists, elbows, hips or knees, and attach a small box to their backs. When the dancers bend at a joint, a measurement of the flexion of each joint is transmitted to a computer offstage, which is interpreted by the software and used to control artistic elements during the performance. Thus the company links the dancers' movements to music, video and lighting.

If a dancer doesn't perform a movement in the exact same way it was performed during rehearsal, the artistic elements programmed with that motion are altered.

But that is OK with Coniglio.

"If the point is for them to move exactly the same each time [for each performance of a work], you might as well put it on videotape," Coniglio says. Use of the hardware-software duo "enables the performers to express their individual inspirational moments as the performance happens."

Coniglio's first version of the MidiDancer was made with radio-controlled car transmitters for a theater arts project that he worked on with Stoppiello in 1989 when they were students at California Institute of the Arts. Isadora, the software that interprets the data reported by the sensors and that interactively controls digital media, is the second generation of a program he developed with mentor Morton Subotnick, an electronic music pioneer.

Coniglio has gotten some requests to adapt Isadora for use on the Internet.

Troika Ranch also uses LaserWeb, which the company likens to a giant harp whose strings travel across a stage. The device senses the breaking of beams of light. When a beam is broken by a dancer's movement, the sensor, in conjunction with Isadora, produces changes in the levels or intensity of lighting and music during the performance. The company also has attached wireless miniature cameras to the dancers to project body images on large screens onstage in works that pay special emphasis to the body.

Isadora has about 250 users around the world, with nearly half using the software to develop theater and dance projects. And Coniglio is working on another version that more accurately and effectively coordinates a dancer's movement with a performance's elements.

Initially, people felt the use of video elements in live dance performance was distracting, says Phoenix's Hess. But audiences now appreciate her high-tech performances. "People are used to seeing a lot more in terms of imagery ... so now people can tolerate a lot more."

Hamby also has been questioned about the choices he makes in his choreography. But he believes that his work reflects the nature of his profession and of modern society.

"I'm an artist, and it is my job to challenge the viewers in some way," Hamby says. "We live in a world of technology and it evolves and it speaks to our time. ... [An artist] incorporates the tools of our society."

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