The choreographer sets a stage for dance and weird science.
By Gia Kourlas|
In his latest work, David Neumann is like a scientist measuring his place in the universe. His desire to place formal movement alongside digital technology sparked Restless Eye, which will be performed at New York Live Arts beginning Saturday 24. For Neumann, who started out an actor, this sort of collision isn't out of the norm: He is obsessed with the way disciplines can be layered to create new artistic worlds. He's also unafraid of humor. In Restless Eye, a work for five with influences that span '60s sci-fi and Chekhov, as well as digital technology involving dancers who control lighting cues with their brain waves, Neumann is proposing a wild ride to a galaxy that, it turns out, is not so far away.
How did you become so interested in digital technology? I wanted to give myself a different process for this piece, and that meant starting differently. Instead of having one subject matter or something that the dance was going to be about, I wanted to start with movement, and I wanted to have a relationship with digital technology in a different way. I've worked on a couple of films that use motion capture [including I Am Legend], and I was interested, in a rough way, to reverse that process. In motion capture, you put some readable points on the joints of a human body and film that; then, you take that movement information and animate it. So you can turn a human movement into a gorilla or a robot or an alien. The best version of that in dance is [Merce Cunningham's] Biped. That piece is glorious and mind-blowing. But I like the reality, the funkiness, the mass of the human body—the reality of the person doing it, too. I thought, What if we took a data set from some other phenomenon and found a way to interpret it on the human body? I looked at a lot of different ways of doing that—everything from statistical information to really empirical number-crunchy stuff—and tried to find ways to use it as a choreographic tool or gave smaller assignments to the performers to make up their own phrases. I did a combination of the two, and we started with a whole bunch of really weird movement that I wouldn't have come up with myself.
Could you give me an example? I worked with a fellow professor at Sarah Lawrence, Angela Ferraiolo. She came up with really simple Flash animations that take on certain parameters of sound. One of the things we did was to speak into a microphone, which created a strange animation—it's actually a line drawing—and we interpreted it, and I assigned certain lines to certain body parts or trajectories through space. It's very technical and precise and not connected to psychology or a metaphor for something else. From there, I started to see some things and to construct larger pieces. I was also reacting to where I was rehearsing and where I had residencies. This was at Mount Tremper Arts. There's a shooting range nearby, and somehow that experience got looped into the piece.
How? I recorded it. After work, a whole bunch of guys show up and just start firing; we were imagining all kinds of weird things: cracked-out teenagers running through the woods. It got really dark. But it's in this beautiful, pastoral setting in the Catskills of birds and bugs, and we were having a great time having barbecues and drinking wine at night and making dance during the day. And once in a while, you'd hear shotguns firing over and over and over again. It was a lovely juxtaposition, and that created its own kind of template and place and feeling. Along the way, certain themes started to develop. We noticed patterns, and as the collaborators started to join in the process, other things were observed and brought in. Sibyl Kempson is writing the text. We were interested in text serving a lot of purposes. I don't use text because I feel dance isn't enough; it's an interesting juxtaposition for me, and language is inherently involved in my process and in figuring out dances. We ended up pulling from Chekhov plays and from NASA transcripts, and I don't want that to mislead people into thinking that it's about 19th-century Russia or '60s America, but that sneaks in.
How is the text used? Text will often be used as voiceover, but the performers also speak. Frequently. Sibyl's written a couple of sections that are really quite astonishing. Because of the nature of the source material for the movement, we got involved in looking at scientists and scientific method, and ways of describing reality: Where are we in the universe? We were thinking about scales of time and space. We both share a love for that kind of stuff—reading science books and things like that. We're not scientists at all. Really, I couldn't explain anything to you. But I enjoy it.
Why did you want Sibyl for this? Sibyl and I have known each other off and on for several years, and we actually attended a playwriting conference last summer in Omaha—the Great Plains Theatre Conference. We taught a workshop together that was around the idea of creating the action and the text of a piece at the same time, inside of a festival that was really focused on writing as being the source material and everything else supporting that. We were showing other ways of how to utilize text. We hit it off and immediately started working together. It was as easy as that. I'm a big fan of her writing. It's very complicated and thorny, but I always feel refreshed intellectually after seeing one of her plays. This process has turned into something much more deeply collaborative than ones in the past. I'm relying on [lighting designer] Christine Shallenberg and [video and sound designer] Tei Blow in terms of the interaction with the technology itself and figuring out how those things are going to happen. We're doing all kinds of weird things.
Like what? There's a consumer EEG brain wave detector that's used for meditation. There's even one by the Star Wars franchise where a kid puts it on and moves a Ping-Pong ball up and down a tube to see if he has the Force. [Laughs] It takes your brain waves, and you can set parameters for how they're interpreted, and software can make an action happen. We're using brain waves to do the lighting cues.
Does it really work? It does! With this software, it can feel like lights are being turned off and on all the time or like clouds passing over the sun. It can feel like a weather system moving in. So the lights subtly shift. You decide on the parameters in the software. The EEG stuff depends on what you're thinking or feeling. Andrew Dinwiddie was wearing it and dancing pretty physically, and the lights were going nuts, and suddenly they switched and were really bright on one side of the stage. So there's a certain amount of chance, but also we're controlling it....
By emotions? Yeah. Should it really be that extreme? Or do we want to keep it in a smaller range? Do we want colors? There are all of those possibilities, and that's what we've been doing: playing with the variables. The other thing we can do is to control sound. We're connecting as much as we can in terms of sounds, lights and video.
Was this sparked by what you observed in your film work? In some ways. Being exposed to how technology's used made me think about our relationship to the technology. I like to take very simple things and rearrange them, so that you see them in a new way. But we're still human beings and bodies. That's why it's dance.
And your dancers are really human. They have personalities—they're not blank. [Laughs] No, they're not blank. You understand them as complex, unpredictable things. Here's my challenge: How do you describe it without making somebody roll his eyes? I came up with a one-sentence line that I use to describe all my work: It's an irrational response to our perceived place in the universe.That speaks to the science part—the curiosity that an artist and a scientist share—but I like the "irrational response" because that gives me the license, as a choreographer and a director, to allow for humor and contradiction and to put things together that don't normally go together.
Do you go into a piece thinking of yourself as more a choreographer or a director? Or are they the same thing? And if they're different, what is your focus here? In this one, they're a real blend. I began as a choreographer. I just wanted to start with movement. I knew that I was going to head to something complicated. That's what I do. In terms of multidisciplinary work, I don't think that I'm adding video because I need some visual stimulus. Those are the tools with which I make the work, and having come from the theater, I do think about text and about human beings in relation to other human beings, and how they're complex and different and contradictory. That's really interesting to me. That's why I have dancers who are recognizably formally trained next to performers who don't have that recognizable training, but, in my view, have a very different kind of virtuosity. For me, there's something beautiful in seeing the effort of someone with less training doing the same movement as someone with more training. It reveals something. And I connect to it as someone who was an actor that could move sort of well to becoming a dancer [with the choreographer Doug Varone] and feeling insecure. I was there with Gwen Welliver, Eddie Takata, Nancy Bannon.... I was like, What the hell am I doing here? I trusted that the audience would empathize with my efforts. [Laughs] Not necessarily with the outcome.
What is your approach to the movement now that you have all these other elements? I'm trying to remain observant to what's happening in the movement and not just careful about "Are you repeating it in the same way?" I use that as an opportunity to see one movement juxtaposed with another. Or what if I slow it down? Suddenly, I feel like I understand it in a different way; then, it makes me think about something else, like a relationship or a scientific concept. Those things form the context of the process itself and begin to inform the piece. I might read a story about something in the Times, and that makes me see the dance in a new way, and then I start looking up something about twitching in Le Roy, New York. I think that's just so fascinating. Have you read that story?
It's so bizarre. Wow. So at a certain point, I react to the movement that's already been made: Oh, we need a slower something here. As part of the early process, the dancers were making movement in response to some of my directives. Now I'm doing a process on their movement.
What did you start with in terms of the movement? Key phrases? A few sequences, really. Some moves were: finger, elbow, head, hip. Is that a phrase? Potentially, but that can be transformed onto a larger scale or forwarded and reversed. It was a long process.
You could have spent a year on just that, right? Easily. I wish we had another two months, because we're making huge discoveries. Luckily, we got to play with the digital stuff in these residencies. That's how we arrived at some of the decisions we made about how they interact. I intuited that it was going to be interesting, but you never know. I was curious about it; I wanted to try it. We did some things at MANCC [Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography] with a Kinect camera, which is the camera you use for an Xbox. You point it at yourself, and it's a representation of you on the screen inside the video game. An avatar. That's another kind of digitizing of the human form. Some of the 3-D digital stuff is interesting to me, but there's something so fucking perfect about it. There's a corporate imprint on it. Everything is controlled.
It generally bores the hell out of me. I find it deadly. So I think it's interesting to take natural, organic movement and to digitize it. There's going to be a time when even the most amazing digital stuff that's happening now is going to look like early Star Trek does to us now. In the end, dance and performance is in real time. I love all these distinctions that the visual-arts world has. [Mockingly] "It's a time-based performative visual-art piece." I'm like, Oh, really? But back to the human form: In performance, there's something about people doing things in front of other people, and this idea about being in the moment from an American acting point of view, for me, is very silly. Often, it's talking about a moment that happens behind an imagined fourth wall, right? Dance is direct, and that's why I fell in love with it. From an acting point of view, there's all of this assuming that it's 1882, and we're in Norway, and I'm a master builder. I don't mind doing that. I enjoy stories and movies and fiction, and I'm a consumer of that, but I think there's a place in performance where something can emerge from abstract ideas that then blossom. Something's inferred—some kind of psychological way of reading what's happening—and then that can go away. It's a delicate balance, but that's what I'm going for in my work—trying to find that elasticity. [Laughs] It's a way of responding irrationally to our place in the universe. My day-to-day includes stories and fantasies about the stories and noticing weird sounds. What's at the periphery of sound is sometimes more influential than where the direct focus is. That's how I work, and those are the things I'm looking for when I'm building a piece.
You want to bring what's normally at the periphery a little bit more center? Yes. Those become the tools for the formal elements of building a piece. The abstraction. Magnifying a moment. It's really ambitious, because I'm trying to do everything in one sense. I know I'm not, but I want to allow for as complex a truth as possible to exist without driving people away. I want you to have a relationship that goes somewhere: You can leave the performance—get caught up in something and then come back in. I'm not threatened by that at all. That's being in the room. That's exciting to me. Bring more of yourself. Hell, yeah.
Is there a connection between thought and behavior that you're working on in this piece? There is. Performance is a place where I can unpack the experience of the mind: What's external, what's internal, what we think we're doing, what we try to explain, and that's why the voices are there too. They're trying to explain what's going on, and they're missing, or they're right on or pointing the audience in a different direction. I like those kinds of shifts in scale and thought.
Why did you want to change your process for this piece? I wanted to start with as much freedom as possible, which is also very risky. I could have been researching this stuff for months in advance. I certainly was reading about it and interested in it, and I knew that I was going to be working on some kind of digital-interface thing, but I wanted to start with a very clean slate: absolute purest movement.
And, of course, it shifted to something else. Yes. But this is not ADD onstage. I don't feel compelled to bombard one with image after image, or idea after idea, which means that there's a time when the process is a real mess. There are too many elements. I'm collecting and adding, right? And then I see that it's an overload, and I start taking things away. That's where I am now. I'm changing the order of some of the dances. I'm shaving text away. Explaining some things better and not explaining other things. That's where we are, and it's exciting because it's starting to turn into a weird, wonderful thing.