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Flash Review 2, 1-18: Techno-Dance
Sweet "Suite Devo" from Troika

By Vanessa Manko
Copyright 2002 Vanessa Manko

NEW YORK -- The New York City performance venue Here has established itself as a purveyor of hybrid performance -- that which combines elements of various art genres, creating entirely new forms. Culturemart 2002, Here's annual winter festival of hybrid performance, is full of artists exploring the possibilities of this sort of interdisciplinary work. What makes this festival even more noteworthy is that all of the featured artists are, as the program explains, in mid-career and taking part in Here's Artist in Residency Program (HARP). The festival includes hybrid performance forms of dance, media, theatre, music, and performance art. Troika Ranch, which combines the choreography and visual artistry of, respectively, artistic directors Dawn Stoppiello and Mark Coniglio, brings its particular brand of hybrid performance to this year's festival: interactive media dance, a genre that is changing the way we view dance and most especially how we think about and experience dance.

For the uninitiated, inter-active media dance, as envisioned by Troika, is far more then choreography performed in front of a series of computer-generated images. Rather, the dance and the technological aspects of the scenery are geared to interact. Dancing bodies control the performance environment through sensors. The images and sound that make up the scenery, then, are not merely passive props meant to compliment the choreography. Instead, they are integral parts of the choreography and vice versa. In short, dance and technology are engaged in a symbiotic relationship where each benefits from the attributes of the other. The result is a cohesive relationship between the dancers and the technology and allows for dance audiences to experience technology through a highly visceral medium.

I am always fascinated by this particular pairing of genres because, for all sense and purposes, it seems a highly unlikely union. Technology, and the information age in general, has continuously moved us away from all things corporeal. We now live in a cyber-culture, and experience things in virtual time. Yet dance takes place in real time and is intrinsically reliant on the real flesh and blood body. So it is pleasantly surprising to see choreographers exploring what types of relationships can be formed between dance and technology and even more interesting when a choreographer doesn't view technology as a threat, but rather, sees it as an experimental-dance ally. Such is the case with the work of the Troika Ranch company.

While Troika Ranch's "Suite Devo" is certainly a deft example of interactive media dance, it is more then just a sample of this type of hybrid performance. It is a witty and sly series of dances set to a catalogue of the techno music of Devo. A vigorous and ambitious work, "Suite Devo "is full of athletic dancing: lunging, reaching, cartwheels, single-handed springs from the floor, and high-powered jumps and leaps. And throughout this cheeky work, there is something very reminiscent of (dare I say) early MTV. In fact, at times it seems a parody of '80s rock music videos, with club dancing references strewn throughout and coy, teasing looks at the audience. But the smart choreography of Dawn Stoppiello saves it from getting too campy.

With two large screens placed upstage and dancers donning ridged helmets and the uniform-like costumes by Akiko Sato, "Suite Devo" gets off to a high-energy start. The four women who open the piece are also pictured on the two screens. What ensues is a sort of competition between the actual dancers and their life-size flashing-image counterparts. The screen images picture the dancers clad in simple white bras and underwear, dancing amid such urban spaces as New York City sidewalks, the steps of what looks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, most visually interesting, in front of a graffiti-covered wall. The flashing images bombard the audience and allow us to see each movement sequence in constant instant reply. The choreography becomes dissected; we get to watch four dancers extend into a develope again and again. These images are quite powerful and have the intense, yet disorienting, effect of strobe lighting.

A particularly interesting and whimsical section of "Suite Devo" was a duet performed against the backdrop of New York City buildings. The dancers seemed to literally float through the air, dancing from building to building. There was a great sense of movement in this section, a sense of going or traveling somewhere. A simple outstretched arabesque or lift seemed to suggest that the dancers were using the cityscape as their playground. But irony was not absent from this section of "Suite Devo" either. The dancers moved swiftly from partnering to playing air guitar. However coyly the choreographer decided to tell the audience it was time to put on the 3-D glasses they'd been given when they entered the theater, what didn't work as well as one had hoped in this section, was the 3-D effects. A single head emerges from the screen in 3-D and mouths the words to the song. Rather then complimentary, I found this distracting and felt it almost took away from the pleasurable effect that the real dancing couple and the moving images of the cityscape had. Perhaps it would have worked better if the 3-D image was of an actual dancer.

Towards the piece's climax, a dancer wearing the simple white bra and underwear of the earlier screen images, dances herself to exhaustion. The solo is a constant crescendo of movement. And while this solo dancer drops to the floor, the same energy level she establishes continues on into the finale. The dancers in "Suite Devo," including Stoppiello, Danielle Goldman, Lisa Herlinger Thompson, Kim Reis, Michou Szabo and Sandra Tillett are all strong and capable performers with excesses of energy and distinct stage personalities.

In some ways, "Suite Devo" is almost too large a piece for such a small performance venue as Here's black box theater. Troika offers so much to take in that the eye needs more of a stage, and perhaps some distance, to absorb it all. Yet, despite this minor drawback, the energy level of the dancing, combined with the challenging visual imagery, made "Suite Devo" leave a powerful statement in the minds of its viewers about the kind of visceral effect that can result from collaborations between dance and technology.

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