Dancing With High-Tech Shadows at the Guggenheim

The digital imagery isn’t confined to the floor. It flows up the sides of the space: a dark stain spreading, a flood rising, a supernova exploding. The light show travels to the spectators, surrounding them. It takes on the whole rotunda as its canvas, connecting the dance with the architecture.

Tech-Obsessed Dancer

“Falls the Shadow” is the second entry in the Works & Process Rotunda Project — performances commissioned to address the architectural properties of the Guggenheim’s interior, which Frank Lloyd Wright certainly didn’t envision with dance in mind. The first installment, presented by the tap dancers Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young in February, dealt mainly (and ingeniously) with acoustical challenges and possibilities. Mr. Simkin is much more focused on the visual dimension, and for his purposes, the rotunda’s white surfaces and top-down perspectives are a boon.

For the past few years, Mr. Simkin, a Russian-born principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, has been devoting some of his time off to a side project, Intensio, combining dancers of his high caliber with the latest developments in technology. One line of experimentation has involved electronic shadows on the stage floor, an effect that can be hard to see from the seats of many conventional theaters. That’s not a problem at the Guggenheim.

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Mr. Simkin. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

Here’s how it works: An infrared camera scans the dancers’ outlines, 60 frames per second, even as they move, and transmits that information to a computer, which then projects images around the dancers. As Mr. Simkin explained during a recent rehearsal, the speed of the computer processing is crucial. “If there is a lag, the brain sees it as a technological trick,” he said. “If there is no lag, as we can do it now, it is like magic, giving another layer to the movement — like a big dress, my father says.”

Mr. Simkin’s father, Dmitrij, is the project’s video designer. He has been concentrating on set and video design since retiring from his own career as a ballet dancer in 2007. A shared interest in dance and technology bonds father and son.

“We live in fascinating times,” said the younger Mr. Simkin. “We have all these new technological tools, but we don’t know how to use them yet. I want to see what is possible when you combine them with dance, if the sum can be greater than the parts.”

Choreographing From Above

It is important to Daniil that the video be integrated and balanced with the dancing. “Otherwise, it becomes gimmicky,” he said.

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Technology meets dance meets the Guggenheim’s architecture in “Falls the Shadow.” Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

For this project, the Simkins have sought help from the interactive media designer Arístides Job García Hernández. The choreography is by Alejandro Cerrudo, the Spanish-born resident choreographer of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (also known for his recent collaboration with Wendy Whelan).

With so much video involved, a choreographer might reasonably worry about his work’s being overwhelmed, but Mr. Cerrudo said that he isn’t concerned. “This performance is not really a dance performance for me,” he said. “It’s an experiment in how all the elements can coexist.”

[embedded content] Works & Process Rotunda Project: Daniil Simkin: Falls the Shadow Video by Works & Process at the Guggenheim

He had to get familiar with the technology very quickly. After a crash course in the possibilities, he created the choreography with the cast — Mr. Simkin; the Ballet Theater soloist Cassandra Trenary; and two contemporary dancers, Ana Lopez and Brett Conway — but without the video. Later, during tech rehearsals, he made adjustments.

More adjustments were made necessary by the Guggenheim’s layout. “The space makes you look very small,” Mr. Cerrudo said. “Many very beautiful movements that we created in the studio meant nothing when viewed from the ramps.”

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Dmitrij Simkin, Daniil’s father, is the project’s video designer. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

But if the rotunda quashed certain ideas, it inspired others. The choreography strives to extend arms and legs horizontally, expanding the body’s silhouette and emphasizing length over elevation. Each dancer’s swirling path registers, and the performers often lie on the floor, making shapes on that plane.

They make shapes together, too: chains, circles, stars. The shift in viewer perspective aids a few perceptual illusions or jokes, like a dancer lying on her side to walk along a wall. And all of this is amplified by the projections, responding to the dancers’ every move.

Superheroes on Shifting Ground

Yet another complication — “a very nice one,” in Mr. Cerrudo’s opinion — is the varied background of the dancers: half from classical ballet, half from Mr. Cerrudo’s contemporary side of the concert dance world. “We had to find a common vocabulary,” he said.

That search is part of the attraction for Ms. Trenary, who embraced the challenge of branching out from her classical training. “Alejandro has a different approach to the floor than I’m used to, and a greater feeling of groundedness,” she said. “I’ve been getting beat up, but it’s worth it.”

Learning to dance with the virtual shadows hasn’t been easy, either. “It sometimes feels as if the floor is moving beneath your feet,” Ms. Trenary explained. “At first, we were really shaky.”

“But when you get used to it,” she added, “it’s like you are one moving the earth beneath you. You feel like a superhero.”

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Source: New York Times

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