Theaters

A Dance of Digital Shadows

by Daniel Larkin on June 27, 2014

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky, "Header Munging" (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky, “Header Munging” (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

Technologies that didn’t exist 10 years are opening up fresh possibilities for choreographers and their collaborators. Interactive designer Matt Romein‘s recent collaborative presentation with choreographer Sophie Sotsky harnessed new developments in motion-capture technology, video programming language, and sound editing to create a truly contemporary dance performance. (It helped that they picked one of the most high-tech venues in New York: the Center for Performance Research in East Williamsburg, which may have a humble facade but inside features a cutting-edge mix of gadgets that make boundary pushing possible.)

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky "Header Munging" (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky, “Header Munging” (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

In the 12-minute “Header Munging” (2014) — the first piece of the night and also the most striking — a dancer entered the dark space and performed with video-art projections that mimicked and followed her movements, as if she were playing with her own shadow. The various dance movements were chosen to maximize how the motion-capture technology could follow the person; she would lean to the left and her new-media avatar would follow. At the same time, the piece emphasized how technology fails to perfectly capture human motion. The outline of the light behind the dancer was jagged and rough, while the shadow she cast was smooth and seamless. It made for an evocative contrast.

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky "Header Munging" (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky, “Header Munging” (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

In the second section of “Header Munging,” the projections changed from white light to Tetris-style block shapes. Again, the blocks would follow the dancer and mimic her motion by changing formation. Different movements and body configurations resulted in different colorful algorithms. It was stunning to watch the blocks color the dancer’s white outfit as if she were a Mondrian painting on the move.

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky "Header Munging" (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky, “Header Munging” (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

All of this was set to music described by Matt Romein as “gentle noise.” The phrase refers to his own efforts to use the latest sound programming language to give the noise music genre a less harsh ring.

After “Header Munging,” the group presented a modern dance piece choreographed by Sophie Sotsky; a set of video art pieces set to music by Matt Romein; and then a film by Samuel Baumel. They teased out various threads that arose in the first piece, but it was the visual play of “Header Munging” that really stuck with me.

The machine could never perfectly mimic the dancers; there was always a glitch or a rough edge. Romein told Hyperallergic that glitches fascinate him — he wants viewers to see technology’s role in the piece as less than immaculate and to create a feeling that it could all fall apart at any time. What exactly is lost in translation between humans and computers? We all tweet, Facebook post, text, and email away. But “Header Munging” reminds us that these mediums can result in inaccurate projections and glitches that distort content.

Even old-fashioned letter writing is removed from face-to-face communication. Franz Kafka famously used the metaphor of the ghost to critique the form. “Writing letters means exposing oneself to the ghosts … writing letters is actually communication with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing … ” “Header Munging” uses a ghostly digital shadow to raise similar concerns about what technological mediation can’t convey.

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky "Header Munging" (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

Matt Romein in collaboration with Sophie Sotsky “Header Munging” (2014) (still from video by Monica Wise)

Romein and Sotsky aren’t the first to use motion-capture technology and new media for a dance performance. Merce Cunningham’s 1999 collaboration with the OpenEndedGroup, “BIPED,” juxtaposed dancers with animated projections based on motion captures of their choreography (it was re-presented at BAM’s 2011 Next Wave Festival). For her 2005 “how long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume,” Trisha Brown brought a computer on stage to project real-time graphics made in response to the dancers’ movements. But whereas Trisha Brown’s performers had to wear sensors on their suits, technology has evolved to a place where the dancers can move freely as the computer responds. Unlocking the aesthetic and artistic potential here has only just begun.

Header Munging: Homologous Edition,” curated by the Dance Films Association, was presented as part of the New Voices in Live Performance series at the Center for Performance Research on June 18, 7:30pm.

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