Luc Vanier's notes on Sur_Rendered

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Though dancers appear to be most meticulously trained athletes, much of what we do on stage is overwhelmingly and amazingly out of our direct control. Neuroscience believes that we actually direct only 10% of our movement responses to stimuli – the rest are already programmed and ready for action before we even become aware of what we are doing. So, while we think we are the masters of our bodies, for the most part, we are at the mercy of our habits; we are only able to make decisions as to whether or not we will continue our initial responses.

The elements of stress and the desire to be perfect only complicate and interrupt this movement process. I believe that dancers need to accept and learn from this information in order to be successful. This is, in part, what Sur_Rendered is about: pushing the limits of faith in our ballet training, specifically with the “technology” of pointe shoes and “épaulement” (shoulder, head and arm positions). It is also about working with another kind of technology. To successfully use new interactive technologies, where anything can go wrong at any time, we need to indulge a high level of patience.

As “partners,” dance and technology have a long history beginning in the mid-west with Illinois dancer and choreographer Loie Fuller who wowed the world at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle with patented flowing fabrics, luminescent salt for lighting and colored gels, which she then used to create beautiful illusions on moving fabrics. Credited as the first American modern dance choreographer (not to mention woman) to perform in Europe, she was a multi-disciplinary artist comfortable in both the arts and sciences.

Sur_Rendered continues in this tradition, existing only through the efforts of many collaborators from computer science, 3D animation, theater production experts, dancers, etc. Movement is best seen in contrast to some other element: water, smoke, fabric, empty space, etc. In this work, we are highlighting motion by pairing 3D visuals to the dancers while they move in space. We amplify space using LED markers on the dancers’ heads that let our computers know where the dancers are situated on the stage. We then clarify movement by using “inertia” sensors attached to their hips which then helps the audience “feel” three dimensional rotation.

The visuals you are seeing on the back cyclorama, the floor and the front scrim are not pre-animated “movies” but rather three-dimensional virtual objects with which the dancers interact in real time. The final “look” is then unique to tonight’s performance. The technology definitely affects the choreographic choices. In fact, this was one of the fears the Milwaukee Ballet dancers had about performing this work--they thought the technology would restrict them. I would suggest rather in this case, the technology also opened up a beautiful opportunity for unique experimentation that resulted in some of the complex movement and compelling relationships you see now.

This work is only possible through collaborators and supporters and I would like to mention and thank them briefly. Michael Pink supported the idea five years ago by writing a letter of support for the acquisition of the motion capture system. Iain Court has been instrumental over the years at adapting the stage so the system can work. Evan Mazurewski has designed animation for me for the past 5 years. Thank you all for your support. Finally my wife, Elizabeth Johnson, who was the first dancer I ever put in a motion capture suit at the University of Illinois. And while she is an expert in her own right, she deserves a lifetime of thanks for her eternal patience and trust in the face of the impossible.