Re-envisioning a Dance Masterpiece

AVL collaborated with the Department of Dance for its challenging restaging and re-envisioning of the Trisha Brown Dance Company's contemporary dance masterpiece Astral Convertible, as its February Dance performance at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (4-6, 2010).

Originally staged with sets by Robert Rauschenberg in 1989, Astral Convertible fused art and technology in performance through enabling dancers to trigger music and lighting elements (i.e., car head lamps and eight-track tape players run on car batteries) rigged into a series of chrome towers.  Brown's choreography was equally as challenging to convention in its task-based movement and asymmetric group dynamics.

In this restaging, led by John Toenjes, music director of the Department of Dance, the choreography remained true to Brown's original vision (under the supervision of former Trisha Brown Dance Company member Kathleen Fisher).  However, the technologies employed were updated and their aesthetic possibilities transformed.

This restaging employed wearable computing architectures (wireless networks that were integrated into dancers' costumes) inspired by the work of Thecla Schiphorst (an eDream/FAA visiting artist from Simon Fraser University) to trigger  music and lighting effects as well as produce data that altered –in real time– graphic projections on the towers themselves. AVL team member Alex Betts was responsible for creating these Maya-based graphics, which evoked surreal ribbons shifting in complement with bodies in motion on the stage.

The dancers' improvisational triggering of aesthetic effects was made possible by a software program developed by Mary Pietrowicz, a researcher at IACAT.  The Labanotation-trained machine learning software recognizes specific body movements and analyzes qualities of movement–such as stillness, turning or swinging–based upon data collected and sent by the sensors and transmitters embedded in the performers’ costumes.

Other collaborators in the work included Jihyuk Choi, a doctoral candidate in the Illinois Network Design and Experimentation Group, and Master's students Brett Jones and Raj Sodhi in the Cultural Computing Research Group.

The production was made possible by the Department of Dance, eDream (Illinois Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media Institute), American Masterpieces: Dance, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute for Advanced Computing Applications and Technologies, the Frances P. Rohlen Visiting Artists Fund/College of Fine and Applied Arts, Research Board/University of Illinois, and the George A. Miller Visiting Scholars Fund/Center for Advanced Study.

For further information, see this University of Illinois Press release.