Digital Dance Theatre: The Marriage of Computers, Choreography and Techno/Human Reactivity
Troika Ranch artists utilize digital software tools to construct the visual and aural material for their works, and to provide new means for an individual dancer to express him/herself from within the performance. Believing technology to possess the same vivacity as the human bodies it accompanies on stage, the company seeks to bring media to life through its interaction with the dancers. The typical technology setup includes one or more sensory devices, worn on the body or placed on the ground, that allows the computer to track and respond to a dancer’s movements on stage.
In order to experience Troika Ranch’s innovative approaches to digital dance composition, I traveled to Brooklyn, New York for five days this past June to participate in the Live-Interactive (Live-I) workshop. The workshop, an intensive seminar for artists and advanced students, is intended to introduce participants to the technological tools that allow their gestures, movements and vocalizations to control various media on stage.
This paper chronicles my experiences as a participant in the 2002 Live-I workshop. My purpose for writing it is to place the study of Troika Ranch within the larger context of digital performance research (which investigates the integration of computer-generated imagery, mechanisms and effects into live-action performance). I am hoping that the article will highlight what research on groups like Troika Ranch offers the academic community in terms of interdisciplinary opportunities and cross-school incentives, as well as underscoring the importance of documenting groundbreaking artistic practices that push contemporary performance scholarship into uncharted methodological terrain.
(Photo courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
2. Workshop Overview
Led by Coniglio and Stoppiello, the Summer Live-I workshop introduced participants to the available technological tools employed by Troika Ranch artists and offered them hands-on experience acquiring the techniques required to use them. The workshop balanced technical training and experimentation with critical discussions regarding the impact of technology on the creative process.
In the workshop we were presented the basics of Isadora, a software program designed by Coniglio as a graphic programming environment that allows dancers to manipulate sound, video and light in performance. We received daily instruction by Coniglio and Stoppiello on the various uses of the software and were encouraged to freely experiment with the program (both on our own and in groups) during the afternoon sessions. Using these initial experiments as a starting point, we began to conceive and construct our own final projects— experimental models that integrated audio, video, movement and text into interactive environments devised by Coniglio and Stoppiello. The workshop culminated with the presentation of these experiments to the group.
The 2002 Live-I workshop attracted eleven participants (see figure 2. above), from various artistic backgrounds, ages, nationalities and countries (including: Australia, Brazil, Canada and Israel). A majority of the workshop attendees were employed as professional choreographers or dance instructors, while two of us worked in the medium of theatre. It should be noted that, although the workshop was intended as a means of disseminating information about digital technology and its application to the creation of interactive dance works, some of Troika Ranch’s methods, insights and practices could be directly applied to theatre production, and other related art forms. I will discuss both the challenges and usefulness of doing so in the final section of the paper.
(Photo courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
3. Workshop Tools
The primary purpose of the workshop was to explore Troika Ranch’s approaches to digital dance making. This involved, first, mastering two unique media tools designed by Troika Ranch artists: Isadora and MidiDancer (described below). Second, we sharpened the skills necessary to create our final projects, including basic programming proficiency, video and audio capture and equipment set-up and repair.
Isadora is a graphic programming language designed by Coniglio that provides interactive control over digital media, with special emphasis on the real-time manipulation of digital video. In performance the program functions as the engine that drives the visual manipulation components of the dance works. By linking together graphically represented building blocks, each of which performs a specific function (such as: playing or manipulating digital video or controlling a digital camera) the modules allow information to travel from one source to another inside the computer, and from the computer to outside interfaces. Over seventy basic building blocks, called actors, are available within the Isadora environment. Some actors perform simple functions like watching for a signal from a MidiDancer sensor, while others allow more complicated functions such as warping video imagery. By connecting several operators together, a dancer can determine the level of interactivity in the performance.
Isadora is used, primary, as an authoring tool, intended to provide dancers and choreographers a means of designing and directing input from a number of sources. By viewing the modules on a computer monitor or screen, the dancer can see how data is moving through the program. This visual aspect of the program is one of its key features, making it easily accessible to those who may lack sophisticated programming skills. In this video clip (see 5. below), Coniglio and Stoppiello describe how Isadora assists the dancer as both a compositional tool and as a collaborative partner in live performance.
5. Video discussion of Isadora’s capabilities.
(Video courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
In addition to its user-friendly applications, Isadora offers the following interface features:
Live Video Input – to mix or manipulate live video with prerecorded digital video
Snapshot Feature- to create, store and instantly recall the settings within a scene
Record Output- to record Isadora's output to QuickTime movie
Sound Input- to modulate sound volume
DV Camera Transport Control- to instruct up to 8 cameras to play, stop, start, record
MidiDancer is a wireless sensory system (or input device) that tracks a performer’s movements and converts that information into digital signals. Sensors worn on the body of a dancer measure the flexion of up to eight joints on the dancer’s body and then transmit the position of each of those joints to a computer off stage. Once interpreted by software running on the computer, the information can be used to control a variety of media including digital video or audio files, theatrical lighting, robotic set pieces or any number of other devices. This picture (see figure 6. below), for example, illustrates how a Midi sensor (attached to the elbow) triggers a video selection each time the dancer straightens her arm.
6. Troika Ranch dancer utilizing MidiDancer sensory system.
(Photo courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
The idea for a MidiDancer-like apparatus grew out of necessity; dancers required a device that permitted them freedom of movement and, at the same time, greater flexibility in manipulating visual and sonic elements of the performance (not typically under their control).
In performance Isadora and MidiDancer work together in the following way: First, MidiDancer tracks a performer’s gestures and transmits that information via digital signals to Isadora. Second, Isadora looks at the sensory information, interprets it in a predefined way and sends signals to the media devices being controlled to achieve the desired result. Finally, the media devices present the media as instructed.
Isadora and the MidiDancer enable Troika Ranch dancers to determine when and at what intensity media elements are introduced into the performance and to directly respond to the media improvisationally. Both theses devices correspond to the company’s desire to expand the vocabulary of the dancer, by providing practical (and easy-to-operate) tools that expand the range of media choices from which to interact with on stage. Artistically, as Coniglio and Stoppiello contend, the immediate reaction of the computer (to both Isadora programming commands and MidiDancer signals from a dancer’s body) allow for expressive possibilities that may be impossible to achieve by any other means.
4. Traversing the Digital Divide: Corporeal/Techno Connectivity
Central to Troika Ranch’s mission of integrating digital media into live performance is the conviction that technology must serve the dance’s narrative structure and composition. In order to facilitate a story or unify a sequence of events, technology needs to be both useful (i.e. easily accessible) and purposeful (artistically). Throughout the workshop, Coniglio and Stoppiello reiterated the mantra: know technology before need. In other words, technological instruments must be mastered before they can be implemented in a live-performance setting. In this video (see 7. below) Coniglio and Stoppiello respond to a workshop participant’s final project, underlying the importance of technological mastery:
7. Video of final project critique.
(Video courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
Coniglio and Stoppiello, drawing from diverse artistic backgrounds, offer distinct (though complimentary) perspectives on the complex interweaving of organic (bodily) and electronic (computer-generated) elements of their work. Coniglio (schooled in electronic musical composition) likens the connection between a Troika Ranch dancer manipulating media on stage to that of a musician guiding his/her instrument in concert with others. He remarks,’The dancer becomes the conductor and directs the music, as opposed to reacting to it’ (Megna, 2001:1). Stoppiello’s training in dance composition informs her view that interactive technologies are able to extend a performer’s physical limitations (bodily constraints) on stage. In this video (see 8. below), Stoppiello and Coniglio discuss why technology plays such an integral role in their work, both as an instrument of self-expression and as a tool for expanding the corporeal capabilities of the dancers.
8. Video of Coniglio and Stoppiello speaking about technological integration in their work.
(Video courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
Coniglio and Stoppiello characterize the unique techno/human interplay on stage as reactive, in that it allows for a mapping of gesture to another media in their works. Terming such a relationship interactive would imply that the technology possesses sentience qualities (having the ability to think and act autonomously). Modeling their creations on jazz sessions (where a defined, yet malleable structure allows for individual interpretations of the score), they look to reactivity in techno/human relations as a means of provide improvisatory opportunities for the dancers in performance.
Improvisation also plays a pivotal role in shaping a performance text. Stoppiello’s choreography is derived from improvisational sources, games and exercises that generate raw material which can then be finessed and manipulated to fit the piece being developed. Improv exercises shape abstract physical phrases, sounds and gestures and relationships between the dancers. Such exercises are especially helpful in working to adapt a dense literary text. The company often, for example, often experiments with a process called "rap", in which a performer speaks extemporaneously for an hour while being recorded on video. Later, the group reviews the footage and selects the parts that are the most dramatically engaging, linking them together into monologues for performance. The source text (most often derived from fictional works) forms the outline for the pieces, but the content of the work is developed imrovisationally.
5. Current Artistic Works
Coniglio’s and Stoppiello’s goals of making technology both easily accessible and artistically purposeful, of media serving the narrative and the importance of promoting improvisation opportunities via techno/human reactivity, are evidenced in the company’s most recent projects.
The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (see figure 9. below) utilizes movement, sound, graphic imagery and spoken word performance to explore the transformation process undertaken by two characters, one set five hundred years in the past and the other fifty years in the future. The work, taken from a literary source, examines the writings of a (fictitious) seventeenth-century alchemist who is summoned by an Angel to partake in a chemical wedding (a mysterious festival that bears very little resemblance to actual nuptial proceedings). The story is a journey of discovery, rejuvenation and rebirth. In exploring the theme of transformation, Troika Ranch dancers attempt to unearth the richness gained from transitory moments and the sadness and confusion resulting from letting go.
9. Promotional material for The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.
(Image by Scott Thompson; courtesy of Troika Ranch)
The cast of The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz consists of seven dancers (3 men, 4 women) and one live musician (who provides cello accompaniment throughout). In terms of technology, the work offered an intriguing combination of pre-recorded and live visual and auditory stimulus, including: algorithmically edited video imagery, electronic music scoring and digitally controlled lighting and sound effects. Performers manipulate media in a number of ways: a dancer’s movement controls wind sounds and video speed, another dancer manipulates video imagery and projected text sound by bending and straightening her arm, a head mounted, wireless camera projects live-video capture on designated projector when the performer bends his neck.
The performance is rich and complex, introducing a plethora of organic and electronic stimuli. In one of the work’s most striking scenes (see figure 10. below), Stoppiello (as the Angel) visits Rosenkreutz (Coniglio) to invite him to attend the chemical wedding. The Angel, at once frightening and surreal, glides, pounces and crawls across the stage, igniting bursts of light and sound from strategically placed laser beams. When Stoppiello crosses a certain spot on the stage, a video, comprised of dozens of pairs of eyes is projected onto the back screen (an image emerging directly from the text). The lighting/sound effects and video, triggered by Stoppiello’s jarring movements, work in partnership to reconfigure her presence on stage, altering her human form into a mystical, ghost-like apparition. In this moment, techno/human reactivity allows for the theme of transformation to be elegantly and powerfully expressed.
10. Stoppiello demonstrating portions of the “Angel” solo.
(Image courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
Stoppiello provides the details of the creation process:
Mark's character comes from the ideas in that book about humans evolving into machines. We used the idea of transformation that seemed to be the moral of the story and were struck mostly with some of the images from the book and wanted to find ways to create them theatrically. The visitation of the Angel was one example another was the invitation which transformed into the projection surface. We used the story as an outline for the piece but didn't use any of the actual text from the book. The two speaking moments around the door were an improvised structure where the performers try to tell the same story at the same time and know what points they need to hit but can get there however they like (2002: personal interview).
Dance critics have responded favorably to performances of The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (it has been traveling across the country for the past few years). They most often comment on the intriguing techno/human dimensions of the work. ‘The technology of the computer-generated music allowed moments of serendipity whereby the dancers could forge an improvisational, jazz like score’ (Cruz, 2001:25). Further, despite the common reaction that there is, perhaps, at times too much happening on stage, critics universally applaud the dancer’s dedication to the work and mastery of the media tools. One writer remarks, ‘It’s not always clear exactly what is happening to the cast of eight, but it really doesn’t matter; they remain compelling due to their uniform strength and clear commitment to the material, and their ease with the demands of dancing and speaking’ (Dohse, 2000:12). Finally, ‘The satisfying blend of technology and organic movement was every bit as magical, spiritual and chemical as the alchemy they evoked’ (Cruz, 2001).
11,12,13. Troika Ranch dancers rehearsing Reine Rien. (Photos courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
Reine Rien, (French for “queen of nothing”), is a work-in-progress created and performed by four Troika Ranch dancers (one male, three female) which explores the idea of cultural, physical and emotional isolation.
In the work the stage is stark, except for three large projection screens (see figure 12. above) surround the performers on stage, serving to dwarf their size. The performers, wearing potable MIDI devices that, when activated, transmit data to Isadora which in turn interprets the information, creating an improvisatory musical score. The video projected on the screens depicts vast prairie landscapes. The sense of loneliness and desolation introduced by the video imagery is mirrored in the dancers’ movements that remain slow, methodical and limp throughout. Towards the end of the piece the dancers come together, forming a unified group, only to separate again in the final moments.
This video clip (see 14. below), taken from a rehearsal of Reine Rien, shows how the dancers’ plodding, methodical movements set against the bleak, yet jarring, video imagery work in unison to shape the austere tone of the piece:
14. Video of Reine Rien rehearsal. (Video courtesy of Kathryn Farley)
The media, in this work, by abruptly interrupting the performers’ careful, deliberate movements, serves to emphasize their physical detachment on stage. Critics have picked up on the forceful media elements of the piece-- components of the dance that appear to be less spontaneously evoked than in other works. Peggy Cheng, having viewed a workshop presentation of the dance, remarked,’The direct link between the body and the creation of the soundscape and video images were very interesting to observe, although I felt my observations were cold; I interpreted the dance as careful and plotted’ (2001:25).
Reine Rien was conceived of differently than The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz . The work began with no guiding images, text or thematic content (such as transformation). According to Stoppiello, telling a cohesive story was less important than developing physical relationships and thematic movement material (abstract and with no intention to convey anything in particular). Again, drawing on improvisation exercises, a certain tone began to develop in the piece that suggested a sense of space, horizon and open landscape (an open prairie). When the idea of physicalizing an empty space emerged, the company happened to be performing in Nebraska. They shot video of the landscape and recorded audio material from a dramatic rainstorm.
Even though the piece lacks a coherent story (though a narrative structure is apparent), Stoppiello hopes the mood of the piece evokes strong, visceral responses in the audience.
6. Troika Ranch’s Methods Applicability to Theatre
Isadora and MidiDancer, as a media management tools, could be effectively utilized in theatre production as a means of promoting expressive opportunities for actors in live performance settings. Isadora, for example, unlike standard "plug and play" programs, offers building blocks that can be linked together to intelligently respond to the live performer. The creative possibilities are endless.
But before attempting to employ such technologies on stage, a director and design team must first consider the dramaturgical considerations of doing so. An actor, by digitally manipulate his/her stage environment, would, undoubtedly, engage with a performance text (physically, emotionally, intellectually) differently. But, to what end? If characters in The Tempest, for example, could conger the furious thunderstorm that begins the play by bending and twisting their arms and legs (generating the aural and visual landscape of the scene), would their embodiment of Shakespeare’s words be more forceful and dynamic? In what ways would the technology be serving the narrative? How might digital media mediate or otherwise intervene in the storytelling process?
Another directorial consideration is the additional rehearsal and set-up time such technologies require. A standard four- week production schedule does not allow for adequate training or opportunities to experiment with the equipment. Additionally, the digital instrumentation (the MIDI sensors, particularly) necessitates daily testing and set-up time in order to achieve balanced calibration, mandating flexible nightly rehearsal sessions.
Cost of the equipment is, naturally, another concern. Isadora software, priced at approximately three hundred dollars, can be purchased from Troika Ranch’s Web site (www.troikaranch.org), but other tangibles, such as hardware expenses (i.e. cost of a state-of-the art- computer) must also be factored in. The MidiDancer system, constructed by Coniglio for Troika Ranch productions, is, unfortunately, not currently available, though sensory systems can be purchased on the open market.
7. Future Directions of the Research
Digital dance theatre represents a robust, hybridized performance genre: part movement, part spoken word, part digital interface. In terms of contemporary performance scholarship, it crosses multiple disciplinary and methodological boundaries, allowing for the investigation of the techno/human reactivity from various perspectives.
What Troika Ranch artists bring to the study of digital performance is a set of tools and techniques that not only promote technological interactivity and improvisational opportunities, but also allow dancers the ability to spontaneously express themselves within temporal environments. As their work becomes more widely known, and as the use of interactive technologies in live performance proliferates, a codified set of procedures and unique vocabulary, specifically configured for this artistic platform, will begin to emerge. In the meantime, it is integral that performance scholars continue to document the work of digital pioneers like those of Troika Ranch, in order to better comprehend the ways in which interactive media technologies have expanded the range of corporeal choices on stage and, in so doing, are forging new directions in performance scholarship, teaching and praxis.
Cheng, Peggy (2001) ‘Flow: Surprise and Fusion form High-Tech Troika’, The Dance
Insider, 10 Sept:1
Coniglio, Mark and Dawn Stoppiello (2002) Personal Interview. 5 June.
Coniglio, Mark and Dawn Stoppiello (2002) Troika Ranch Site,
Critical Art Ensemble (2000) ‘Recombinant Theatre and Digital Resistance’, The Drama
Review 44(4): 151-166.
Cruz, Maribel (2001) ‘Performance Mixes Dance and Technology’, Lincoln Journal Star 20 Apr: 25.
Dohse, Chris (2002) ‘It’s Chemical: Frankincense and Surveillance with Troika’, The Dance
Insider 16 June: 12.
Jowitt, Deborah (2001) ‘Changing Landscapes’, The Village Voice XLVI(39): 24.
Knott, Laura (2001) ‘World Wide Simultaneous Dance: Dancing the Connection Between
Cyberspace and the Global Landscape’, Leonardo 34(1): 1-16.
Megna, Michelle (2001) ‘Digital Dancing’, Daily News 8 April, metro sect: 7.
Research Note and Author’s Bio
As cited above, this paper was derived from various sources, including: videotaped and written interviews with Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stoppiello, members of Troika Ranch dance company and participants in the 2002 Live-I workshop, as well as critical reviews of the company’s works that have appeared in various national newspapers and electronic publications during the past five years. The paper’s author, Kathryn Farley, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, is completing a dissertation entitled: Theatre in the Digital Age: Interactive Technologies, Virtual Spaces and Aesthetic Transformations. For the past year she has held an artistic residency at Studio Z, a Chicago theatre company dedicated to experimenting with digital technologies in live performance (see figure 15. below), where, working with a team of computer scientists and electronic artists she is creating a digitized version of Dracula for the stage. At Northwestern she has taught courses which explore contemporary Irish drama and the adaptation of fiction. A multimedia portfolio of Kathryn’s academic and artistic work can be found at www.kathrynfarley.org.
15. Kathryn rehearsing in front of Projection Screen at Studio Z, Chicago.
(Photo courtesy of Kathryn Farley)