Theater archives

Our Primal Future


“I wish Nik could have seen this!” I thought while I was watching 16 [R]evolutions Open Source, the latest digital dance theater piece by Troika Ranch’s Dawn Stoppiello and Mark Coniglio. Alwin Nikolais, multimedia choreography’s master wizard, died in 1993, before the digital explosion in dance. How thrilled he would have been by the possibilities that continue to fly out of the (mostly) benign Pandora’s box of computer generated imagery, interactive video, and sonic effects.

I imagine him grinning as a slim white line of light appears at the front of the performing area, speeds across the floor, mounts the spine of a seated man, and climbs the back wall. It remains in place, widening and narrowing. Dancer Daniel Suominen’s face is intermittently trapped in the beam, as if he’s looking into a brighter place from a cracked-open door. I sense how turned on Nik would be when he realized that the bright, almost calligraphic colored lines flourishing across the patterned wall are responding to the arm movements of Lucia Tong as she dances across the room.

The program note explains: “Using a single camera pointed at the stage, free software called EyesWeb creates a 12-point ‘skeleton’ that follows the shapes of the dancers’ bodies. The position and trajectory of each point is passed to Isadora. . . .” This software designed by Coniglio then “generates visuals and manipulates aspects of the sonic score by interpreting the movements of the skeleton. . . . ” Nik would definitely have accepted the invitation to interested audience members to hang around after the performance and try out the “mediated environments.” (We got a taste of this in the lobby, where a grouping, a gesture, or even the color of a handbag could mysteriously alter the grid of white lines dancing on a wall.)

Unlike Nikolais, Stoppiello and Coniglio are interested in narrative, and they constantly face paramount questions: When do drama and technology meld perfectly? When does one overwhelm, distract from, or trivialize the other? I know what they hope to convey in 16 [R]evolutions. They envision a kind of evolution-devolution journey of “four post-intellectual humans who have lost touch with the animal drives of their pre-human ancestors.” They write that the work “asks the question, can we reconnect with our core needs to feed, fight, and reproduce while continuing to evolve into beings of light and intellect?” This is a daunting scenario for a dance.

The two scenes mentioned above are ones in which Coniglio’s technology and Stoppiello’s choreography stimulate feelings that are larger and more beguilingly enigmatic than any of the elements considered alone. There are other thought-provoking passages, like the opening when Suominen, Tong, and Robert Clark, bare-chested and wearing white briefs, stand staring, bent slightly slightly forward from the hips. They walk in this apelike stance while, at the back, Johanna Levy slumps at a white table. The projections that create their environment look like striated hills made of ribcages, marked by the dancers’ shadows. The line-up-the-spine device is multiplied, and this time the lines shift on the floor, and the four have to keep up with them. One stunning (and trenchant) effect occurs: Not only do their shadows dance on a striated background, but other stripy, incomplete virtual selves fold in and out of the pattern.

The problem is that progress and regression are sometimes hard to tell apart, perhaps because so much of the action centers on clothing and food and a bit of sex. High-heeled shoes figure importantly. Levy examines a pair, sniffing them like a curious primate, finally putting them on incompletely, and tottering proudly up to the others. Shoes are grabbed, fought over, and drunk from; you can’t be sure what stands for developing awareness and what for the experiments of the jaded and the bored. Food (white cereal bowls and boxes, white milk containers) elicits no pleasure (Coniglio’s score provides loud dutiful crunching sounds). Near the end, the four run in a line, their arms around one another, with individuals occasionally breaking out. It’s the most heartening moment of the evening, although it’s not treated as such.

The magically beautiful universe (dependent also on Joel Sherry’s set design and Susan Hamburger’s lighting) keeps imprisoning and releasing the dancers. The sound score is so intimately tied to the visual components that you can hardly be sure what’s triggering what. Crash!—a pattern disappears and golden light bathes the bodies. At the end, Suominen sits for some time folding white cloth napkins (left over from his earlier stint as a waiter-trainer) into little boats. Sitting before a table flooded with them, he suddenly and with no discernible preparation jumps onto the table and lands as efficiently as an animal, after which he blows and kicks the napkins away. It’s a stunning moment. I’m still pondering what it signified.

The four excellent dancers are all based in Britain, where the piece was created during a residency, and essexdance is listed as a producer. The U.S. co-producer, 3 Legged Dog, had hoped to house the Troika Ranch creation in its new Art and Technology Center. Construction delays entailed moving the production to Eyebeam, another haven for media arts and new technologies. Opening night in the hastily configured theater went off without a hitch. To a person not expert in the digital world, that’s one miracle among the many on view.