Theater archives

The Body Electric


Maura Nguyen Donohue used to make dances the old-fashioned way: in a studio, with other people, slowly. Then she discovered Final Cut Pro, a program that lets her “edit” her choreography on a laptop computer. She still spends long, sweaty hours improvising with her spirited troupe, In Mixed Company. But their studio time is far more focused and fruitful.

Donohue, one of 10 artists exploring potential alliances between performance and technology during a year-long fellowship at Dance Theater Workshop, is investigating ways digital media might better serve independent artists, onstage and off.

Donohue usually videotapes rehearsals, selects the segments she likes, and splices them together digitally. Then she shows the edited sequences to her dancers and they forge ahead. Each rehearsal yields another tape, another opportunity to refine the dance.

“With video and the computer, I don’t have to interrupt the dancers’ creative flow,” says Donohue, who has spent the last few months in Asia. “I can do the editing work on my own. . . . Of course, once the dance is [back] in the dancers’ bodies, it takes on new shapes, phrasings, and floor patterns.”

“The point is not to showcase technology,” says David White, DTW’s executive director since 1975. “The point is to make the technology disappear, so the focus is on ideas.”

Yet, at DTW’s luminous new home in Chelsea, starving artists may well fixate on all the state-of-the-art gear. The offices, rehearsal studios, and 192-seat theater are networked, making it possible to send digital audio and video between any two rooms. The cables converge in a windowless space housing three computer servers dubbed Fred, Ginger, and Gene.

Just down the hall is an artist resource and media laboratory, open since April 1. Known as the ARM lab, it has several high-end workstations (four Macintosh G4s, with dual 1.25 GHz chips, and one Dell, with a 3 GHz Pentium 4 processor) with 23-inch, flat-screen monitors. Artists can scan images, create artwork for promotional postcards, burn CDs or DVDs, or edit raw video.

The lab is home to 10 ARM fellows, whose mission is to think big thoughts about what artists need and how technology can help them get it. Among the fellows are four choreographers (Stephan Koplowitz, David Thomson, Cathy Weis, and Donohue), two video artists (Barbara Bickart and Tal Yarden), a composer-programmer (Mark Coniglio), a sound and video designer (Brian Nishii), and two choreographer-video artists (Nell Breyer and Gabri Christa). Each gets a $3,000 stipend. They meet monthly to discuss tools and ideas they use in their work and to brainstorm about ways technology can better serve the dance community. Breyer and Yarden recently proposed a vastly expanded online version of The Poor Dancer’s Almanac, with a focus on continuous input from artists around the globe. Earlier Coniglio gave presentations on Midi-Dancer and Isadora, two products he created for Troika Ranch, the interactive dance troupe he founded with his wife, choreographer Dawn Stoppiello. Starting in September, the fellows will present works in progress to the public.

“You only have to look at the Wooster Group to see what the possibilities are,” says Jay Ryan, DTW’s director of technology, who oversees both the lab and the fellowship program. “The way they use projection as presence is just mind-blowing.”

But after viewing audition tapes for DTW’s “Fresh Tracks” series, Ryan fears that many choreographers are missing the point. “A lot of people use video in dance, but many of them are making the same mistakes,” he says. “Video is such a powerful image, it can completely overwhelm the dance. Many people use it as a backdrop, like it’s just wallpaper. But it upstages the dancers. You have to think of it as another performer.”

Ryan, who has moonlighted as a lighting designer for Richard Move, Sally Silvers, and Annie-B Parson, describes himself as “an accidental technologist.” Six years ago someone at DTW complained that a computer wasn’t working. He agreed to take a look, and one thing led to another. Today he oversees one of the most technologically sophisticated performance venues in the world.

Ironically, one of the first productions in DTW’s new home was a piece by Weis, who’d rather tinker with affordable, low-tech equipment than chase the latest gizmo. “I can’t afford a lot of shiny new products,” says the choreographer, who made good use of two black-and-white TVs in her show last fall. “But I have an imagination and I can use the older stuff, work with it hour after hour in my studio. I find that if you twist it and pervert it, you can achieve something very special.”

Some of the fellows are less interested in using technology in performance than in seeing what it can do offstage. Donohue, for instance, just spent four months meeting with peers in Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, India, and Vietnam. She is testing ways for artists in Southeast Asia to develop a stronger Web presence, communicate more easily with Western artists, and tour internationally. Koplowitz, whose Guggenheim Fellowship was announced last week, has created large multimedia works in public spaces like Grand Central Terminal and Bryant Park. But as director of the dance program at Brooklyn’s Packer Collegiate Institute, he thinks technology may change arts education more radically than performance.

Lately his students have been using a DVD that William Forsythe, artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet, developed to train new members of his company. Called Improvisation Technologies, it features 60 video clips—augmented by computer animations—in which Forsythe and his dancers demonstrate different principles of movement and space.

“I’ve been teaching creative movement for 20 years, but this changes everything,” says Koplowitz. “It lets my students create their own movement vocabularies, and they look nothing like Forsythe’s. It helps them reorient space and their relationship to it. And it gives them a way to talk about movement that goes beyond feelings.”

Computer technology also offers performing artists a useful marketing tool, Koplowitz says. Next month at DTW he will begin teaching a basic video editing workshop using Apple’s iMovie software. Participants will come in with raw video of their work and walk out, an hour later, with an edited DVD. For artists with more advanced needs, DTW offers private consultations using Final Cut Pro.

Later this spring, DTW will begin offering a video streaming service. Artists can drop off a five-minute video clip and have it converted, compressed into three major formats (QuickTime, RealPlayer, and Windows Media) in multiple sizes, and hosted online. The service costs $150 for the first year. (The Kitchen uses the same service to show performance clips on its Web site.)

“You can’t get a grant anymore without a video of your work,” says Weis. “But many choreographers have no grasp of how to prepare one. The post-production facilities in the ARM lab put it within their reach.”

The fellows are quick to point out that technology is not an end in itself. “I see the video and computer work as just a tool along the way,” Donohue said via e-mail from Tokyo. “Part of the craft. But the art happens before and after, in the studio and on the stage.”