Digital Dissolving Doors

Manipulating Digital Landscapes: Digital Dissolving Doors

by Winfield Maben for The Dance Journal

The performing arts have been uniquely affected by the ongoing pandemic as not only are in-person performances essentially halted for the foreseeable future, but rehearsals too have been made nearly impossible given the close physical proximity many performers require to get the most out of the rehearsal process. Where digital classes over Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, and more have filled the gap when it comes to physically engaging in dance, performances still remain elusive as gathering any amount of people in the same space poses a risk at this point. However, even in the face of these obstacles, the dance community has pushed ahead to find solutions and resume performances amidst the chaos.

One such performance occurred on Friday, August 7th, on both Facebook Live and Zoom where The Philadelphia Compositional Improvisation Lab Ensemble, facilitated by Loren Groenendaal, Curt Haworth, and Kat J. Sullivan, presented an evening of improvisation with several collaborators and guests in Digital Dissolving Doors. The evening’s program, which ran for about an hour, utilized the unique framing presented by the digital medium to offer a diverse array of improvisational stylings in intimate settings as each performer was showcased to their virtual audience.

The program begins with a duet performed by Ann-Marie Gover and Katrina Atkin which utilizes a split-screen effect as each performer is streamed in from their respective locations. Each performs on a staircase, playing within the narrow confines of the space, exploring the depth and verticality provided by both their surroundings and the angle of the camera. As they twist, ascend, and descend, they sometimes stop face to face with the camera; tugging at their faces and warping their personhood through the screen. Not only does this segment explore the space, perspective, and framing unique to quarantine, but the nature of Zoom also throws an unexpected element into the mix as each person watching views the two performers in a different arrangement. Where I view them side by side, others see them stacked vertically or mirrored. Intentional or not, this highlights the way the unpredictable nature of technology can be harnessed to add texture and variety to digital performance.

Next comes a segment that fuses movement and percussion featuring Sean Thomas Boyt and Andy Thierauf. As Thierauf provides accompaniment through a wide array of instruments scattered about the studio, Boyt moves from place to place, pushing the expanses of the space to its limit and infusing the entire room with energy. As the improv progresses it slowly turns into a duet, rather than abide by the standard performer/accompanist dynamic, as Thierauf moved from drum to drum crisscrossing paths with Boyt, the two weaving dynamically together throughout the space.

Following the duet is Asemina Chremos, who brings papercraft into the mix by utilizing miniature items to create and explore small dioramic scenes. Fulfilling the role of both actor and director, her camera frequently moves about giving fresh perspectives on the movement every few minutes. Further texturing the segment is her use of shadow and silhouette to create various shapes that flesh out the world around her. An experiment in form, posture, and character, Chremos showcases the multitudes within oneself and provides the audience with something resembling an impromptu character study from the comfort of their homes.

The next section, a duet between Sara Outing and Miryam Coppersmith, adds a meta-layer to the digital framing of the evening with Outing’s camera fixated on yet another screen, upon which Coppersmith can be seen alone. However as Coppersmith begins to move, Outing’s hand emerges from beyond the frame with a paintbrush, tracing Coppersmith’s lines and pathways. The result is a synthesis between visual and performance art as the dancer both guides and is seemingly guided by, the painter as the screen becomes increasingly filled with colors, lines, and shapes, However even beneath the painting, movement can be glimpsed, barely visible, guided by the approaching completion of the portrait. As the section draws to a close the audience is left to decipher the product of this collaboration and to draw meaning from what had been an empty screen just moments before.

The penultimate performance of the evening was given by Skye Hughes and Rachel Cohen, another remote duet that played off of confined spaces, rather than the expansive vertical space of the duet between Gover and Atkin. Each performer is completely walled in, as if confined by boxes, emerging and retreating from the darkness behind them. Slowly they begin to speak, one clearly and one distorted. It becomes clear that each is chewing gum, which in turn causes the distortion in their voices. The gum then extends past their conversation and into the movement itself as it is stretched, twisted, and manipulated, bringing the internal into the external and constructing an eerie landscape of strange sounds and movements.

Closing out the evening was a performance by the event’s hosts, Loren Groenendaal, Curt Haworth, and Kat J. Sullivan alongside Amalia Colon-Nava who performed a quartet that took full advantage of the opportunity to warp perspective in a digital space. Each member of the quartet is filmed from two perspectives at once, allowing the audience to take in both at the same time via the grid-based structure provided by zoom. These perspectives change regularly with dancers moving in and out of frame or turning off one camera only to have it appear again from a new angle. Their movement is prompted by a series of spoken word questions that act as a driving force and explores how even when completely separate, people can form connections as they pull sounds, words, and movement from one another.

Performances like these make me hopeful as a member of this community as they prove that even though there are clearly obstacles in the way of the performing arts, there are also new opportunities to explore, manipulate, and derive unique movement from. Watching a series of six improvised performances, all of which utilized the digital medium of the showcase in a unique way, proves that the ingenuity present in the performing arts will help us persevere even when things look dire. By pushing onwards, experimenting, playing, and collaborating, lessons will be learned that will not only help to clear the hurdles of the present but also to strengthen our artistic lineage as it moves onward to the future.

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