I don't say this very often: Mortal Engine at BAM last night was amazing. Watch this video to see what I'm talking about:
I don't see a lot of dance, because I generally just don't "get" it. I mean I respect it, and it's incredible to watch, but to me, it's like watching a foreign movie without the subtitles--I rarely have any idea what's going on emotionally in a dance piece. But Melbourne, Australia-based Chunky Move has used technology so well that it actually helped amplify and communicate the emotion of the piece for me, and it seems that the amazing technology on display at BAM is at the heart of director/choreographer Gideon Obarzanek's vision for the show.
The Interactive System Design by Frieder Weiss was impressive and very, very well done. As you can see from the video, dancers are tracked tightly and projectors overhead and in the front can create a wide variety of very cool effects. The system can generate a sort of masked out followspot, brightly illuminating the dancers while keeping the background dark. Or, it can illuminate the raked stage brightly and create a sort of moving, merging, tracking black hole around the performers. Other times, the performers' actions triggered images and sounds of electrical sparks, or particles that were clearly moving with some physics-based rules. And the lighting by Damien Cooper was well integrated with all the elements and supported some key moments in the show.
Of course, it's not the first time we've seen stuff like this--my friend Holger Forterer has been doing similarly impressive work with with Robert Lepage for years (and I've written up a lot of that here). Moment Factory did a lot of interesting work for the last NIN tour, which I documented here, and of course Troika Ranch has been working on dancer interactivity for years. But what was interesting in last night's show is how far this technology has come even in the last few years. Cirque du Soleil spent millions on Ka, and got a pretty amazing system. NIN probably didn't have to spend as much, but looking at the videos I have on my link above, there is still some considerable lag in the system. On Mortal Engine, though, the technology is now, finally, operating fast enough (at least for the ways in which the dancers were choreographed), and there was no obvious delay in anything I saw last night. This allowed the interactive media, finally, to work so well that performer effectively merged together.
In addition, many times the sound and music (by Robin Fox and Ben Frost, respectively) was apparently being generated live in response to the movements of the performers. Sometimes, the video graphics were reminiscent of old analog tone-driven oscilloscope, and it sounded like the tones were being generated (at least part of the time) live. Othertimes, there were digital sounds clearly being triggered by dancers' movements, and the sync was amazingly tight.
Laser Audience Scanning--a US First?
Now, to put things in context regarding the use of lasers last night, we have to take a bit of a trip down memory lane (this is a blog, after all). My first job out of college was with Bran Ferren, and Bran was big into high power lasers at the time (mid 80's). I always had thought lasers were fun--for a 20 year old to have the the ability to burn holes in things with light was very cool. Of course, high power lasers can also burn things like your eyes, as morons in Russia proved just last year, turning a high power laser into a crowd, as I reported here.
In the states, Blue Öyster Cult was one of the first to do large-scale laser shows in widely viewed live performances (I saw them in the early 80's myself), and they were doing cool but potentially stupid things like shooting high power lasers off mirror balls into the audience. The explosion of laser shows in the late 70's brought a lot of regulatory scrutiny (which BOC documents here), and the result was that the FDA (yes, the Food and Drug Administration, don't ask me why) came to regulate laser light shows. Not to be left out of the party, New York State decided to regulate lasers as well, requiring a license for use of high power lasers. So, when I was working for Bran, we needed some people with NYS licenses, and so I took a great class from Norman Ballard, and got a Class B license (I've continually renewed my license, although I've actually never used it).
So, in the states, the laser operator has to ensure that the beam can never exceed the limits set by the regulations at any audience member's eye at any time. And given the state of the art in laser technology, this meant (until now) that "audience scanning"--tracing the beam across the audience--has effectively been banned by the FDA in the US. (Keep in mind that this was only true in the US--I clearly remember sitting in the balcony of a disco in London in the eighties with an engineer friend, and both of us were ducking as a high power laser was manually aimed at a mirror just below where we were sitting.)
Back to the show: Chunky Move's laser artist Robin Fox (who also did the sound for this show) has used modern, incredibly fast-scanning projectors to do some very cool stuff, like this:
Watching the show last night, the laser came on, and was focused downstage. And I was thinking, hmm, that beam is hitting some of the audience members in the first row. And then they opened it up to cover the whole audience, who were literally gasping, because audiences in the US have never seen anything like this before. And to take it even farther, the speed of the laser projectors now has gotten (with new technology) incredibly fast and responsive, and Mr. Fox is actually letting the dancers control the lasers interactively, with the performers "pushing" the scanned beam.
After the show, I ran into my old friend Norman in the subway station, and, of course, it turns out that he did all the filings and compliance and safety work for this show. I've asked him to send some more info on this show, which may mark the first (legal) instance of audience scanning in the US, and I'll post more info when I have it.
In the meantime, seats are still available and this show closes tonight so go see it! If you miss it at BAM, it looks like it will be down in Philly at the Philly Fringe in September.
Thanks to Allison Keating and Netta Rabin for posting raves about this show on Facebook! At this crazy time of year, I would have only heard about this show afterwards if not for them.