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Reimaging performance

They curl down and then up, lunging, swaying, swinging arms and legs. Others stand and watch, some drawn into what is happening before them. Then the onlookers move on, only to encounter more curling, lunging, swaying bodies around the next corner.

It’s not an altercation on a busy downtown street. It’s what happens when visionary artists set out to break through the imaginary “fourth wall” that separates audience members from performers.

The audience for “Dance: Re-Imagining the Proscenium” roamed from the lobby to the nooks and through the crannies of the University of Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, ultimately finding themselves on a theater stage. Throughout the journey, dancers executed choreographed and spontaneous dances to music composed by New York-based composer James Lo. It was all part of the November 2008 modern dance performance showcasing the area’s reliance on the Mahomet Aquifer that flows deep beneath the ground.

“I am interested in large phenomena like bird migration and aquifers—the systems that quietly surround us on a scale that is almost unknowable. When I knew I was coming to Illinois I started to research environmental issues and concerns, and water issues came up on my radar; there was some concern that ethanol production could have a lasting impact on water levels. As I started to learn about the aquifer I became fascinated with how vast as well as how invisible it is. I had a romantic notion of some vast underground lake with pure glacier water hundreds of thousands of years old, but as I researched it I realized how much more complex a phenomenon it is,” explains the performance’s creator, Illinois dance professor Jennifer Monson.

This distinctive dance experience was executed with the assistance of numerous collaborators, including some from NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Lab (AVL). Jeffrey Carpenter, Robert Patterson, and Stuart Levy created visualizations like the one behind the dancers here. The visualization depicts a persistent ground of dark, shimmering sand perpetually in motion, evoking the opaque and porous substrates of the aquifer through which water moves and from which it is drawn. Slowly an isomorphic image of the aquifer rises and turns to open, inviting viewers to move within the exposed mystery of its negative space. Gradually a graphic representation of the aquifer resolves until it is superimposed across the three-dimensional outlines of the aquifer. The images linger only a short time until the reality of the aquifer—dense, dark, and subterranean—is reasserted. The visualizations were projected not just on the rear wall of stages and rooms, but around corners as well, surrounding and immersing the dancers and the audience, expanding their experience into new dimensions.

In creating her dances Monson is working from the systems of the body—the fluid, skeletal, and muscular systems, engaging what she calls “the imaginative state of the body” to evoke something that contains a multiplicity of potential meanings.

“By bringing the audience through the space I offered them the opportunity to understand the dance through their own kinetic, sensory experience of movement combined with the sound score and visual element,” she says.

In addition to expertise of the AVL staffers, Monson collaborated with her students; fellow dance professor John Toenjes and his students; Krannert Center technicians; Cultural Computing Lab director Guy Garnett and research programmer Mary Pietrowicz; and Illinois State Water Survey scientists H. Allen Wehrmann and George Roadcap.

The performance was part of the Institute for Advanced Computing Applications and Technologies (IACAT) Creativity and Computing research theme, which is exploring, among other things, the use of new technology for creating innovative performances.

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