Virtual Dancers take the Stage

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Contemporary dance can be a tough sell. Companies worldwide are trying to attract new audiences, and push boundaries, by going 'high tech.' This week the Snappy Dance Theatre of Boston premieres a work titled 'String Beings' that digitizes performers with a computer program called 'The Scribbler.'

WBUR's Andrea Shea has more on this duet between dancers made of flesh and virtual dancers projected on a screen.TEXT OF STORY

MUSIC AND SOUND FROM REHEARSAL: And bring up Michael's light. As soon as it's up Carrie you notice is...and as soon as she turns Andrea light goes out.

ANNDREA SHEA: The Snappy Dance Theater needs more than lights to make 'String Beings' happen. Three cameras, a bunch of computers, multiple screens and two projectors animate the performers in humorous, ironic and unexpected ways. Their 'virtual selves' are projected onto a black screen. It's a little hard to describe but the cameras capture the dancers' movements...and then a nifty visualization program called 'The Scribbler' goes to work.

MARTHA MASON AT REHEARSAL: Where is the Scribbler...why isn't it on the screen?

ANDREA SHEA: That's Martha Mason, Snappy's Artistic Director. She says The Scribbler transforms the body of a dancer into a beautiful, surreal, even creepy figure.

MARTHA MASON: That looks like an artist has drawn the image of a human being but it's constantly being redrawn so it's live and very imperfect and loose.

ANDREA SHEA: And the body really looks like it's made of lines scribbled on paper...or maybe one continuous strand of string. At one point two men are attached by a 10 foot long harness. Using their weight they pull it taught. Then a woman appears. The trio circles around, attracting and repelling. On screen each virtual dancer has a glowing orb in the center of their chest.


MARTHA MASON: And when they get close enough together there's a digital string that shoots out and connects one orb to another and it's totally random they never know when it's going to happen but it's a nice parallel because they have a physical rope between them and then they have a digital line that shoots out and connects these people like their souls are reaching out to each other and we use that effect a few times in the piece.


ANDREA SHEA: It may sound a little abstract, but Mason says lines and string are potent metaphors for the connections between human beings.

MARTHA MASON: You have your heart string on a string, you string ideas together, there's string theory who knows what that is, there's the DNA of your body is kind of in strands, so it was very important for Jonathan and I that the effects he was using were extremely human and thought provoking about the soul or the heart or humanity somehow.

ANDREA SHEA: The Jonathan she refers to is Jonathan Bachrach, the new media artist and MIT researcher who created The Scribbler and is now collaborating with Mason and her dance company.

MARTHA MASON: And when we first started it was interesting...we saw all these cool effects and started to feel insecure as dancers, oh well how are we ever going to live up to those cool effects?

JONATHAN BACHRACH: And I was always feeling like the dancers were more amazing anything I could do because the human body moving is just so beautiful to watch, so captivating.


ANDREA SHEA: Bachrach has been experimenting with animating human movement for years. But dance critic Debra Cash says combining the body with technology always raises questions.

DEBRA CASH: The main question is are people too engaged with the toys to be making an expressive statement because you can really run with all of these technologies and you can have a good time and we're all used to images on screens so it's very appealing to us we pull toward it, but if you're gonna do stuff in a theater you've really got to balance it out.

BONNIE DUNCAN: As a dancer I feel like I'm not sold on the technology sometimes.

ANDREA SHEA: Bonnie Duncan has been with Snappy for seven and a half years and she says she's wary that digital dance could be seen as a gimmick.

BONNIE DUNCAN: My personal taste is often to simplify things and take away all of the layers down to its simplest form so I hope that somehow this has the reverse effect and having something so amplified will make it simple. Cause I'm not quite sure.

ANDREA SHEA: But Duncan says Snappy's Artistic Director Martha Mason always tries to find a hook to engage audiences. Mason agrees.

MARTHA MASON: I think people are exploring what else is beyond there besides modern dance by itself. And one of the things Snappy likes to pride itself in is we're incorporating so many other influences and modalities that maybe it will attract people who are afraid to see just dance.

ANDREA SHEA: But what about the people who are afraid to see dance combined with technology?

MARTHA MASON: There are dance purists who might be grumpy that so much technology is happening so they're never going to like what we're doing and that's fine too and I love pure dance.

ANDREA SHEA: And she says you can't get any more raw and human than seeing nothing but bodies on stage.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

This program aired on June 1, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.