Recent viewings of highly effective intermedia performances

This weekend I was involved in a couple of showcase events for the APAP conference (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) here in New York. Every year presenters and performing artists from the U.S. and around the globe converge at the Hilton in midtown Manhattan to pitch and book performance engagements. It’s exciting and completely overwhelming. Every square inch of dance space in the city is used to showcase dance companies in the hopes of catching a presenter’s eye. My APAP involvement centers around my workplace, Pentacle, which is an arts service organization that among other things, provides booking services for dance companies. I’m not involved in the booking department, however around APAP time, all hands need to be on deck to help run the showcases.

We organized two showcases this year for two groups of artists we represent, and I was happy to see that there were several companies: Bridgman/Packer Dance, Kinodance, Jonah Bokaer, and Troika Ranch that are integrating media in highly effective ways in their work. A couple of them I had known for a long time but never seen live, so this was a great opportunity to look at intermedia performance again with fresh eyes.

Generally, I’m a purist when it comes to dance and media. I like what matt gough calls “screendance” – dance on screen only. This is because I feel like dance is so engaging when produced well for screen that I don’t want to be asked to look anywhere else when I watch it. However, I have experimented with using video projections in my own live dance pieces, and there are a few instances when I have been really impressed by media used in live work. Happily the performances I saw this weekend all expanded my views of media in live dance.

My usual gripe with intermedia performance is that the video projections tend to upstage the live action on stage. As soon as the video goes on, the dancers become dwarfed by the projection and seem to be little insects buzzing around the main event, which are the giant images on screen. Too few artists seem to understand the powerful pull video has on an audience’s eyes, and they don’t take this into account when designing their productions. For Bridgman/Packer and Kinodance however, this has been handled impeccably well.

bridgmanpacker.jpgBridgman/Packer (Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer) is collaborative duo that began using video several years ago to multiply themselves on stage. In their performances, life size images of themselves appear and vanish just as the real them appear and vanish behind invisible curtains and hanging screens. The result is a moving tromp l’oeil (eye-trick) that is truly delightful. Their work is generally pretty light-hearted and fun, a welcome relief from the usual heavy modern dance fare. I have actually found myself smiling while watching their work, feeling the edges of my eyes crinkle, and and leaning forward in my seat to try to follow the dance better. It’s almost therapeutic to be entertained by a dance performance these days, and Bridgman/Packer can deliver the goods.
Photo: Bridgman/Packer’s Under the Skin by Paul B. Goode

Here is a clip from Bridgman/Packer’s Trilogy consisting of “Seductive Reasoning,” “Under the Skin,” and “Memory Bank.”

The other master of media and dance integration is Kinodance, a Boston-based collective consisting of filmmaker Alla Kovgan, choreographer/dancers Alissa Cardone and Ingrid Schatz, visual artist Dedalus Wainwright, and lighting designer Kathy Couch.

Photo: Secret Streams by Alla Kovgan

kinodance.jpgKinodance pieces are also obviously made with the visual media in mind from the start, but in much more subtle ways. I had the opportunity to see their full length work “Secret Streams” performed at Dance New Amsterdam on Monday night in which the video images were used almost as another dancer in the work. At the beginning of this spare and simple all black and white piece, just one white vertical bar moves across the stage catching a screen of vertical white strings hanging across the back of the stage and moving over the two dancers. Eventually two vertical bars appear and then three until it evolves into square windows of moving landscapes and eventually a web of white lines. The dancers reacted to the movement of the projections, and at times it seems like the projections were a reaction to the dancers’ movements. This attention to detail between the video images, the lighting, set and dancers was seamless and organic. My favorite aspect of the piece was the use of shadows. Lights were set specifically to cause the dancers to cast shadows on different surfaces and during different video moments. As a result, the shadows became players in the piece as well, fusing the dancers with the video projections and creating dramatic tension during what was otherwise a pretty abstract and formalist piece.

Here’s a video clip of excerpts from “Secret Streams” by Kinodance.

Jonah Bokaer is a young choreographer recently of the Merce Cunningham Company, who has been making waves in the New York City dance community as a presenter and founder of Chez Bushwick (a dance space and presenting organization in Brooklyn). In his own artistic work, he shares his mentor’s passion for technology with dance, and has been working with 3D animation and motion capture technologies for a while now. The excerpts I saw at APAP showed some strong ideas and an expert grasp of technique both as a mover and as a video-maker. In one excerpt he played a digital animation of himself performing a complex movement combination that seemed impossible for a real human body to do. However as soon as the video ended he got down on the floor and performed the routine perfectly. He almost didn’t seem human, his impersonation of the computer animation was so exact. Obviously, through his work with Merce he has been learning movement from a computer for a long time!


Photo: Nudedescendance by Jonah Bokaer

The other work Jonah showed was a short video involving what looked to be motion-capture-generated animation with live action video of dancers. The music was great, a weird and noisy score by downtown experimental turntablist Christian Marclay and Bokaer. This was screendance as I tend to watch it, and I was excited to see a piece of my world at a conference for performing arts presenters! Perhaps if Jonah continues to rise in stature, it will become more common to see videodance and screendance being shown at large and prestigious arts facilities. We’ll see!

Here’s a link to Doug Fox’s video interview with Jonah last fall:
(PS: Jonah will be a guest curator of Kinetic Cinema on April 7th. Mark your calendars now!)

Loop Diver by Troika Ranch
loop-diver.jpgTroika Ranch is perhaps the best known of this group of intermedia wizards. The company is headed by dancer/choreographer Dawn Stoppiello and composer/media artist Mark Coniglio who also designs much of the interactive technology. Troika’s work involves muscle sensors on the dancers’ bodies which trigger sounds, lights and video projections. I had the opportunity to see their latest work in progress, “Loop Diver” this past fall at 3-Legged Dog in Manhattan (see their blog about this piece here). With a stage design consisting of several screens hung perpendicular to the audience, the video is projected on these screens so you can’t see the images straight on, and the dance is segmented in several sections of the room. The work is about “the violent interuptions of our lives” and it is dark and grueling to watch. At this point Troika Ranch is so good at what they do on the technology side, they have started to make their performers become triggered by the technology, rather than always the other way around. In “Loop Diver” the performers get caught in loop cycles, where they repeat the same movement phrases over and over again, until something or someone breaks them out of it. As media becomes more pervasive in our lives it provides more and more metaphors for life itself. With “Loop Diver” Troika Ranch is moving beyond just exploring what technology can do for them, but also what technology is doing to them, an exciting path that helps keep the technology from over-shadowing the artistic purpose of their work.

Here is some video source material for “Loop Diver” that the dancers recreated live during the performance.

What are your favorite examples of intermedia performance pieces? What else have you seen that is merging media with dance in effective or not so effective ways?

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One Response to Recent viewings of highly effective intermedia performances

  1. This is a great article – thank you!

    I am the co-artistic director of DOUBLE VISION, an intermedia performance group in San Francisco. It’s always wonderful to learn about other intermedia groups and modes of performance. Please take a look at our site, as well: . We have lots of video documentation online, too. I think the Evolutionary Patterns and the Lonely Owl series & the Disembodied Head series would be of particular interest to you, as would individual works like Video Action Painting. Thanks!

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