Round and Round

Television producer Joss Whedon recently suggested that people keep waiting for the proverbial dust to settle in their turbulent lives, only to realize that the settling dust is actually their life going on. Dawn Stoppiello and Mark Coniglio, the masterminds behind Troika Ranch's Loop Diver, certainly seem to echo Whedon's sentiment in their fascinating new production at the 3LD Art and Technology Center. In this modern dance presentation, the choreography is enhanced by strong multimedia elements, and each ingredient amplifies the central theme—the creation, execution, and ultimately destruction of patterns, or "loops," in people's lives. Six dancers garbed in subdued black move through an open playing space, which is interrupted only by three large projection screens. As the performers whip feverishly through the space, it takes only a few cycles to realize that their movements follow a very strict pattern. Each location, posture, and pose is rigidly defined.

The choreography hints at narrative threads, such as two performers who might represent lovers. We're not supposed to know the particular emotions behind their movements specifically—each caress, advance, or rejection is executed as if the players were robots pantomiming the human experience. As the piece progresses, the lights change slightly, and the performers pick up their pace. Then something tremendous, yet simple, happens. Two of the usually nimble performers violently bump shoulders as they pass each other. Simultaneously, the music becomes distorted. From there, the "loop" deteriorates into anarchy.

At first listen, the music is unspectacularly digital—seemingly random beeps and blips occasionally corrupted by static. Likewise, there is a simplicity to the performers' movements that might suggest an uninspired choreographer. But both of these initial conclusions would be wrong. Astoundingly wrong.

While Stoppiello receives billing as the head choreographer, two unique architects also guide the players' movements. EyeWeb and Isadora, two revolutionary computer programs, use cameras at either end of the performance space to map the performers' movements. The programs (one created by Coniglio) interpret these movements to create the multimedia elements of the show. These programs govern practically all of the musical and video elements, and in turn, the performers react to each change in the elements by improvising slight variations on their main choreography. These improvisations ultimately inform new media elements in the program, which inform new improvisations, and so on and so on.

This staggeringly innovative convention appropriately expresses Loop Diver's theme of incorporating disorder into living patterns. Does it work? At the risk of sounding naïve, the "loop" repetition seems too redundant in some portions of the show. Seeing the same dance sequence 20-plus times is part of the experience, but it doesn't always feel new or necessary. Eventually, you yearn for the slight deviations to become more dramatic.

About halfway through, the performers speak garbled sentence fragments into microphones. Curt phrases like "Impossible to discard" and "Change, don't change" read like verse poetry and also intensify the central concept. Still later in the piece, small groups of performers take center stage for short vignettes. Unfortunately, some of these solo dances went on too long to retain interest.

Assigning credit for the choreography is difficult. Stoppiello certainly deserves most of the kudos, but the performers are also credited with the creation of the movements. The staccato, robotic movements effectively convey the automaton-like mind-set in which people carry out routines. This provided some comedy later in the piece, when performers would find another person in their spot and would bump them and back up repeatedly, like a toy robot bumping a wall. Another excellent bit involved the performers desperately trying to discard their clothing but ultimately finding themselves unable to.

The piece requires that none of the performers stand out, and none do. Each is fully devoted to the style of the piece, and hearing them huffing and puffing as the movements get more intense only draws the audience in further. In addition, they all affected mindless expressions very well. Robert Clark, Jen (JJ) Kovacevich, Johanna Levy, Daniel Suominen, Lucia Tong, and Benjamin Wegman deserve praise for their commitment and ardor.

Coniglio's video projections are quickly edited and efficiently disorienting. In some nice moments, the performers move around the screens while videos are playing and cast striking shadows. The lighting design, by David Tirosh and Jennifer Sherburn, was minimal but proficient.

What Loop Diver lacks in grace it makes up for with originality and scope. Normally, modern dance, like abstract painting, elicits only an immediate emotional response. Troika Ranch's production certainly evokes that initial reaction, but it also manages to provoke interesting thoughts about the nature of our routines and habits. Perhaps the most profound idea: if the patterns in our lives are forged by our reactions to previous patterns being ruptured, who's to say—when the dust finally settles—that any true patterns exist at all?

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