Koosil-ja and David Neumann Think We’re as Smart as They Are

Some people worry quite a lot about the meaning of dances. Perhaps they think, “There are human beings like me (well not quite like me) on stage, so they must be telling some story I should be able to understand.” Musical notes, even paint on canvas, are not so burdened with elusive significance. But puzzling over whether that white rope in Martha Graham’s Night Journey stands for the fatal umbilical cord that bound Jocasta to Oedipus is nothing compared with the identity games and deconstructive gambits dear to some of today’s adventurous choreographers. The answer to the question, “What does it mean?” might well be “What do you mean by meaning?”

The very title of Koosil-ja’s latest work, Blocks of Continuality/Body, Image, and Algorithm, is enough to alarm the faint of heart. The fascinating piece, like her 2004 solo deadmandancing EXCESS and her 2006 Dance Without Bodies, uses projected video as a source for generating dancing. Before your eyes, the living performers instantly process and reproduce what they see on suspended monitors. But Blocks is much more elaborate and technologically complex.

The monitors—some of them two-sided so that both audience and dancers can see them—are divided into six compartments, several of which may hold a different video at a different time. Three larger screens hang closer to the audience. Robert Ramirez and David Or (part of the large team responsible for creating and programming the startling animations projected later) join Koosil-ja and stage manager Madeline Best at the laptops in the front row that control the images. If you don’t know the process behind the improvised dancing, you may figure it out before long. For instance, in the second solo, Melissa Guerrero is trying to respond to three sources: a little Balinese girl performing a legong; a man (I think) doing a peacock dance from India, and fashion advertisements. You see bits of these alight on her body and take it over fleetingly; sometimes she’s able to channel elements of all three videos almost simultaneously (those lifted and crooked Indonesian elbows are unmistakable). Koosil-ja calls this technique “Live Processing.”

Ava Heller, Elise Knudson, and Melissa Guerrero in Koosil-ja’s "Blocks of Continuality/Body, Image, and Algorithm."
Yi-Chun Wu
Ava Heller, Elise Knudson, and Melissa Guerrero in Koosil-ja’s "Blocks of Continuality/Body, Image, and Algorithm."
Andrew Dinwiddie, Neal Medlyn, Natalie Agee, and Weena Pauly  
in David Neumann’s "Big Eater."
Paula Court
Andrew Dinwiddie, Neal Medlyn, Natalie Agee, and Weena Pauly in David Neumann’s "Big Eater."


Dance Theater Workshop
March 3 through 6

David Neumannís Big Eater The Kitchen
March 4 through 13

In a trio by Guerrero, Ava Heller, and Elise Knudson, the three women base their moves on what they see in simultaneous slides of famous paintings in the Louvre and quick-changing videos of traditional dances from Africa, Tibet, the Middle East, and India. Imagine the effect when Guerrero slides her folded, Mona Lisa hands apart as a belly dancer’s shimmies possess her shoulders. You know for sure you’ve caught on when a bunch of red-clad Masai warriors start jumping straight up, and the live dancers join them. Composer-guitarist Geoff Gersh used some of the music that originally accompanied the videos and processed them in various complicated ways to create his score; he also recreates some of that source material live, along with pre-recorded elements.

Watching the videos and the living dancers, I feel as if I’m a sort of conduit myself—interpreting and processing the interplay, watching how movements change in new contexts. I’m also enjoying myself in ways that transcend the transformative digital dance of actual and virtual. The movements that the heroic dancers perform with such powerful awareness may be recognizable in terms of incremental images, but, taken as a whole, the dancing looks like nothing I’ve ever seen.

After the six short dances of Part 1, Part 2 offers an explanation of the technological wizardry behind Part 3. Omigod! Each of the three larger screens will house an animated avatar. Each of these will be controlled by sensors that the dancers strap on, and gestures drawn from Part 1 will now be calibrated to move the avatars in ways that, to my eye, have nothing in common with those gestures. In other words, the dancers have had to master the art of digital translation, but without, I’m guessing, an absolute certainty of the outcome. Meanwhile Gersh sits hooked up to sensors, meditating; his processed brain waves (don’t ask) trigger an installation of some kind that periodically taps on the wall of the theater. The procedure is analogous to that generating the avatars’ moves, if more cerebral.

One of the avatars, a woman, never leaves her lonely onscreen room, just looks out the window or up at the ceiling. Another, a thieving street kid, roams in and out of bookstores and markets. The third avatar, a slim, shadowy man, can be “everywhere and nowhere.” Simultaneously, each of the three women studies “her” screen and controls the avatar’s motions. It’s amazing at one point to watch Knudson’s arm gestures make the subtlest of adjustments in the third figure’s reclining position. I’m not sure how or why this happens, but the central screen gradually fills up with silhouetted doppelgangers of the avatars until the space resembles a crowded New York gallery opening. Every now and then, Gersh masterminds another thud.

The performers’ bodies and invisible minds (and the musician’s as well) form conduits and networks that link virtual and actual, interior and exterior, and create new, slippery (and bewitching) identities. You can ask all the questions you like and get technical explanations, but no answers explain the mysterious power that emanates from Block.

Next Page »