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Dance and Digital Technology Fuse in an Immersive Performance in Middlebury


Published February 22, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Middlebury Performing Arts Series
  • The Wilds

On a dance floor bounded on two sides by multiple large LED screens, two incredibly fit dancers face each other and start bouncing from foot to foot. Wearing black bodysuits adorned with long straps that activate with their movements, they bounce in unison through precisely mirrored moves to electronic music, never touching each other.

Given the scenes scrolling across the screens behind them — expanses of water, sunlit nature, abstract objects in motion — this might appear to be a dance performance accompanied by digital images. But The Wilds, a 60-minute work choreographed by Middlebury College assistant dance professor Laurel Jenkins, uses much more sophisticated technology, and its goal is humanistic: to engage the audience in an immersive experience that will inspire a sense of shared humanity.

Vermont audiences have a chance to attend The Wilds this Friday and Saturday, February 24 and 25, at Middlebury's Mahaney Center for the Arts. Jenkins, one of the dancers, will be joined by Los Angeles-based devika v. wickremesinghe and Miguel Alejandro Castillo, a Venezuelan dancer and Jenkins' former student at Middlebury who now lives in New York City.

The Wilds premiered last year at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, Neb. It was cocreated by Jenkins; Jesse Fleming, a multidisciplinary visual artist who is the founding director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Awareness-Based Design Lab and an assistant professor at UNL's Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts; and Los Angeles-based, Grammy-nominated composer Lewis Pesacov. The creative trio plans to take the work to New York City, LA and Montréal next.

With the help of dramaturge and Middlebury theater professor Claudio Medeiros, the cocreators fashioned a narrative for The Wilds that follows the archetypal human journey from order to chaos and back, with the return characterized by a new understanding.

As Jenkins described the narrative arc during a phone call, "Order and society break down. One character goes on a journey, the other follows, into a forest. [The light moves from] afternoon to evening to deep night to dawn." (Lighting was designed by UNL assistant professor Michelle Harvey.) "Deep night is almost like a rave or the best night out you've had dancing."

Just before dawn, a scene in the third act, the two dancers touch for the first time, though their relationship is ambiguous. "Are they friends, one version of the same person, sisters, lovers? The piece doesn't pin that down," Jenkins said.

She added, "We're playing with this idea of wildness: going out into the wild, but also going into your own wild."

Audiences will get a sense of how wild the work's technology is from the moment they enter the theater. As they find their seats, two dancers wearing motion-capture bodysuits loaded with sensors will slowly move around the periphery of the stage, triggering voice recordings of random numbers: 42, 11, 106 and so on. The whole stage is overlaid, in effect, by a virtual grid; the numbers correspond with sectors of the grid.

As cocreator Fleming explained during a phone call, he and UNL coding specialist Shane Bolan "designed a software tool that allows us to turn a performance floor into a bunch of triggers. Imagine a virtual grid over the floor. At every point you cross, it can trigger sound, lighting, anything we ask it to. It's like building a living instrument that the dancers perform within."

The divide between dancer and technology is thus "a little murky," he added. It's "as much bringing the digital into the physical as bringing the physical into the digital."

During performances, Fleming and Pesacov sit at tables in back of the audience creating the visuals and tweaking audio in real time, making each performance unique.

Jenkins said the technology is also meant to collapse the divide between performers and audience. The L-shaped setup of the LED screens is mirrored by L-shaped audience seating, and the sound and lighting feel immersive.

In the first act, for example, Jenkins searches for the other dancer, who has left the stage. As she moves, sliding and circling the floor, she activates the 12 speakers set around the space, one by one, so that the audience hears wings fluttering past and behind them.

That sense of shared experience is emphasized when Jenkins, in a final scene, breaks the fourth wall and takes the hand of an audience member. The moment "creates an image of connection using the body of the audience," Jenkins said.

  • Courtesy Of Middlebury Performing Arts Series
  • An animation sequence in The Wilds

While much of the screen imagery is either abstract or taken from the natural world, avatars of the dancers often pop up, mirroring the motion-capture suits' movements. Created from body scans, the avatars may loom in close-up or appear in fragmentary moments.

Jenkins explained that the work is not about technology. "The technology is in service of amplifying the body," she said. "It's not just, I move my arm, and the light turns blue. It's a more generative relationship between movement and technology."

Jenkins grew up in Essex Junction and studied dance, theater and ballet in town at the now-defunct Movement Center. Her teachers were Vermonters Jennifer Lavoie, Shelley Ismail and Manon Pellman. (The latter two are former professionals from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.) After earning her bachelor's degree at Sarah Lawrence College, Jenkins danced in Washington, D.C., as an apprentice with Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange, an intergenerational company. Then she moved to New York City and spent 10 years with the postmodern Trisha Brown Dance Company.

In 2013, Jenkins relocated to the West Coast to earn her MFA in choreography from the University of California, Los Angeles. During her five years in the city, she said, "I got into sci-fi to understand LA. That place was so big and abstract, with deserts and freeways. [I was trying to understand] how people connected with each other." The experience turned her work toward technology. She moved back to Vermont six years ago to take the Middlebury job.

Jenkins' dancing and choreography projects have often been top-level collaborations. In 2018, she choreographed the LA Philharmonic's production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. In 2019, she performed solos by Merce Cunningham, one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, in LA's Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event. Jenkins was the solo dancer in the San Francisco Symphony's 2022 production of Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and directed by Peter Sellars.

Contemporary dance, including her own, is all about connection, Jenkins said. Whereas "the postmodernists were pulling things apart, people right now are interested in integration and putting things back together in new ways. [The question is] how do we move forward as human beings?"

The Wilds, she added, immerses audiences in a collective experience of vibrating sound, light and movement to show "how a small human action can ripple through space and time. It is about connection: connecting us to the environment and connecting us to each other."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Wildest Dreams | Dance and digital technology fuse in an immersive performance in Middlebury"

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