nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
January 18, 2006
Before you ever meet the performers in Troika Ranch’s 16 [R]evolutions, you meet Isadora. That’s the name of what is essentially the fifth dancer in the cast, the one that isn’t human. Isadora does not have arms, legs, and poise like the others, but rather sensors that create a 12-point skeleton of each dancer onstage, using a single camera pointed toward the action from downstage center in front of the house. I am not a technophile, so I am not sure if I can use the word “lasers” here, but the six-year-old in me who grew up with Tron wants to ever so much.
Isadora is a bit of real-time motion-tracking software designed by co-artistic director/visual designer Mark Coniglio. As “she” and her 12-points follow each dancer about, the computer animation on the back wall surface and the sonic score are manipulated by the movement of the bodies onstage. The high-tech environment “dances” with them, and with the audience as well, as they enter the lobby of the Eyebeam Art & Technology Center. There, stationed above the entrance to the performance space, is a mini-version of the sensor-camera used in the piece. As you face the camera and twitch your arm, animation lighting up the opposite wall twitches with you. Though I couldn’t glide it about as beautifully as the dancers did, the entrancing effect of making light tremble with the slightest body shift did cause me to actually utter the words “Far out!” The woman standing next to me said, “Try it with a glass of wine, you’ll enjoy it even more.”
This dance piece is a subversive cocktail all by itself, viscerally choreographed by Dawn Stoppiello and blending eerie elements of natural human grace with the cold, intangible, threat of technology to overpower it. Dark, innate senses are played on, and a dread is produced that is universal, yet impossible to rationally describe—an uncertainty that mankind is still at the wheel of an increasingly programmed world. The four dancers—Robert Clark, Johanna Levy, Daniel Suominen, and Lucia Tong—embody walking consequences of a permanent status shift between man and machine. Each is a representational character who has lost all instinct and impulse, and replaced them with set reactions to electronic stimuli. At the beginning, needs that we take for granted are simply non-existent. The need to wear clothes is gone, for these characters no longer send or receive messages through dress or nudity. Likewise, the need for the body to align itself and stand up straight has been removed from its fundamental know-how, along with its ability to run, attack, or protect itself from corporeal elements.
What hasn’t been deleted becomes clear as the performance progresses: Loneliness, empathy, curiosity about others, and sensation to their touch. The dancers all move with yearning, passionate force, connecting with each through means of both status and vulnerability. A memorable sequence shifts status amongst the humans themselves—with two acting as snooty servers of a cereal breakfast to the remaining two, who sit dead-eyed and listlessly chew in time to loud, crunching sound effects. As each cereal-eater breaks from the table to dance, a server returns, sits, and folds napkins into the shape of a boat before leaping upon the table itself, a defiant captain amongst his linen armada.
The interplay of the four dancers and the virtual environs they manipulate on the back wall is fascinatingly ambiguous, much like society’s attitude itself toward technology. In one sense, the lights and dancers swirling in tandem are quite beautiful—an evolution toward an environment of harmony and equilibrium that guides us as we guide it, exacting a new, precise definition of peace. In a sense of considerably more menace, 16 [R]evolutions fashions a Orwellian universe in which Man is never hidden from the glassy, omnipresent gaze of movement sensors; a world where technology is an impenetrable skin over all things, suffocating and inescapable. Breath seemingly cannot be drawn anywhere in such a world without a computer converting it into recorded data of 1’s and 0’s, and all animal senses are turned gullible or inoperative. The cast of dancers, along with Dawn Stoppiello’s powerful choreography and Mark Coniglio’s astounding effects, plumb the depths of this paradox with artful consideration. Though bold advances in computer capability are in fact what fuels their work, making it possible, relevant, and cutting-edge all at the same time, it is their use of that capability to examine itself that makes them artists worth keeping an eye on.
Multimedia theatre of this nature, in which artists are controlling the media in real-time onstage, will soon be a trend, I imagine. It removes the clunky and awkward barrier between live performers who are creating shared and impermanent moments with an audience and inadaptable, prefabricated media that is identical to itself from night to night, such as an actor onstage having a “dialogue” with a pre-recorded voice-over. Companies like Troika Ranch that use technology not for mere spectacle, but as a means of allowing theatre to explore man’s relationship with gadgetry provide shows like 16 [R]evolutions that are fiercely engaging—audiences are spellbound by a live, shared moment of man and machine relating onstage. This relationship, long the exclusive province of sci-fi book and screen, has been too long out-of-reach of theatre’s unique and powerful ability to examine and sear into consciousness. 16 [R]evolutions is an exciting, innovative breed of performance with all-too-short a run—give your eyes and mind a treat and catch it before its animated lights go dark on January 28th.