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Technologically turbocharged 'Astral Convertible' to be staged at Illinois

"Astral Convertible" rehearsal
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dance department

Dancers at lllinois rehearse "Astral Convertible," a seminal dance production from the 1980s that will be "reimagined" with interactive 21st-century technology.

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1/22/2010 | Sharita Forrest, Arts Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A seminal dance production from the 1980s by acclaimed postmodernist choreographer Trisha Brown will be “reimagined” with interactive 21st-century technology by artists at the University of Illinois.

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Rehearsal of "Astral Convertible." | Photo courtesy dance department.

A portion of Brown’s “Astral Convertible” will be restaged Feb. 4-6 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts by the U. of I. departments of dance and theater in collaboration with the Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media Institute – known as “eDream” - and the Institute for Advanced Computing Applications and Technology.

Hailed by The New York Times as “ingenious,” “startling, stunning and exciting to look at” for its fusion of technology and the arts, the original production used motion sensors activated by the dancers to cue electronic sounds and car headlights in towers around the stage.

To reinvent “Astral Convertible” with the latest technology, John Toenjes, music director of the dance department, collaborated with other media specialists to create an interactive system of sound, light and performers. At its heart is a software program developed by Mary Pietrowicz, a researcher at IACAT, that recognizes specific body movements and analyzes qualities of movement – such as stillness, turning or swinging – based upon data collected and sent by sensors and transmitters embedded in the performers’ costumes.

The software and sensors in the costumes also interact wirelessly with sound and light in the set.

“eDream has approached Astral Convertible in the experimental spirit of the original,” said Donna Cox, the director of edream, a professor of art and design and a pioneer in the field of scientific visualization as an art form. “We’ve been especially excited about developing computer graphic elements for the stage that respond in real time to dancers’ movements, which was a team effort involving Alex Betts, of the Advanced Visualization Lab; Mary Pietrowicz; Jihyuk Choi, a doctoral candidate in the Illinois Network Design and Experimentation Group; and undergraduates Brett Jones and Raj Sodhi in the Cultural Computing Research Group. We will continue to develop these emergent technologies for use in future productions.”

When “Astral Convertible” premiered in 1989, the World Wide Web was in its infancy and concepts such as “interactivity” and “wireless devices” weren’t part of the standard lexicon.

“But now the Web has progressed to Web 2.0 and community-building,” Toenjes said. “I wanted to do a production rooted in the concepts of community and sharing – where the dancers and stage are combined and communicate with each other.”

A challenge for Toenjes, who is a specialist in computer-assisted interactive dance and an instrument designer, has been pushing the boundaries of innovation while heeding Brown’s request to adhere to the minimalist and mobile look and feel of Robert Rauschenburg and John Cage’s set, costume and music designs from the original production.

“Trisha Brown has been one of the most masterful movement makers in the last century,” said Jan Erkert, the head of dance at Illinois. “She’s really transformed the way we think about how bodies move, and her exploration of the integration of body and mind is parallel with faculty research within our department.”

The “Astral Convertible” performance at Illinois is being funded by an American Masterpieces: Dance grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts, which has supported several past projects at Illinois.

“The American Masterpiece program is fantastic because it brings classic American dances to communities and college campuses across the nation,” Erkert said. “It keeps masterwork dances alive, educates our communities about their history, and provides learning laboratories for students.”

The work of media artist/designer, dancer and choreographer Thecla Schiphorst – a faculty member at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, and a pioneer in merging the performing arts and computing – inspired the “wearable architectures” integrated into dancers’ costumes. Schiphorst also worked closely with Toenjes on the costume sensor technology as a guest artist in residence.

Also contributing to the “Astral Convertible” project are Kathleen Fisher, a U. of I. dance alumna and former dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, who is reconstructing the original choreography; and Sean Murphy, a visiting consultant and guest artist, who worked on the original set.

The performance is part of February Dance, which also features new work by faculty members in the U. of I. dance department – also known as Dance at Illinois – and performing artists Renee Wadleigh and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol.

Tickets are available from the Krannert Center ticket office online or by calling 217-333-6280 or 1-800-527-2849.

Editor's note: Founded in 2009 to cultivate collaborations in artistic performance, computing and engineering, edream is campuswide institute funded by the Office of the Provost with additional support from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and other units.
A video interview with Cox is available on the UI News Bureau’s Web site.

To contact Cox, call 217-244-2005; e-mail donnacox@illinois.edu. To contact Erkert, call 217-244-3189; e-mail erkert@illinois.edu. To contact Toenjes, call 217-265-0359; e-mail jtoenjes@illinois.edu.

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