By James Sofranko, March 23, 2021
I first met cellist Jordan Hamilton at an ArtPrize event in 2019, where he was playing on a rooftop, of all places! I could tell he was a classically trained musician, but he was also using a loop pedal and other electronic sound enhancements. It reminded me of an idea I had years ago, about looping dancers’ movements, and this year our all virtual season seemed like the right opportunity to explore this concept. Jordan was quickly on board, and I spoke to Sloan Inns of SALT Creative Studios, our video partner for the season, and he started investigating ways to design the video setup.
I decided to project an image onto a screen located on the stage, so that the dancers could interact with the images, whether they be live or looped. Jordan would set up downstage left. It took some experimentation, and before I started making up any steps, Sloan, John Ferraro (company and facilities manager), and Mellissa Slack (production stage manager) tried an initial setup in the theater so I could wrap my head around what I would have to work with. The image projected to the screen on stage left could either be from a live feed from a camera focused on stage right, a looped recording, or another live feed from a second camera, located offstage right in the wing. My biggest concern with the looped feed was that it could remain musical, a delay of a second or two after pressing the button would cause the musicality to be off. I ended up using the help of another dancer not cast in the piece, Steven Houser, who ran the buttons and the loops. It really helped that he was able to learn the choreography and press the buttons at exactly the right moments. So after some trial and error, we figured out that what I was hoping for was indeed possible, and I set to work making the choreography.
Jordan’s first song, called “Circuits,” is actually in a time signature of 7, so I made up numerous phrases in 7. Because I knew some of these phrases would be “looped” I told Julia and Yuko to enter the frame of the camera after 1, and they had to leave before 7. That way when the video looped, you wouldn’t see the dancers ‘jump’, it would just appear as if they ran off camera and immediately back on again. Or alternatively, I made sure the dancers started and began the phrase of 7 (or a multiple of 7) in exactly the same position, so the loop looked as seamless as possible. It was a task, but sometimes restrictions like that actually make creating steps easier. Much like this season, with limitations come creativity.
The looping was one challenge, but my other camera idea also proved to be another hurdle. We decided to use a GoPro camera, you may know them as the cameras used by skateboarders and mountain bikers, because it is small, durable, and has a good lens range and focus. I wanted the dancers to be able to grab the GoPro and move in and around each other so we could get an “inside” view of the choreography. The result is that you can choose to watch the choreography “live” on the stage, or you can watch the live feed from the GoPro on the projection screen. The dancers had to take care to not jerk the camera, and we also had to “choreograph” the angles and the cord coming from the camera so they wouldn’t get tangled or trip on it; my first time having to choreograph a cord. There were many things to navigate, but again, the challenge is what made it fun and exciting.
In this new world where we are experiencing so much on screens, and at times obsessed with our own images, “Point of You” examines this phenomenon and hopefully offers some new possibilities about what is possible when dance and technology collide.
I hope that you enjoy “Point of You,” it was a lot of fun to create, and I’d like to thank all of the collaborators who helped bring my crazy idea to life. Jordan Hamilton, Sloan Inns, John Ferraro, Mellissa Slack, Steven Houser, and the three dancers: Yuko Horisawa, Julia Turner, and Isaac Aoki.
I am so proud of this organization for pulling together quite a feat in “Collective Force”, nine works new to Grand Rapids Ballet, four of them world premieres, all rehearsed and created with the choreographers via zoom. (Except for “Point of You,” although there was one day when I did rehearse them via zoom too!) The variety of choreographic styles and voices is a testament to the talents of the dancers of Grand Rapids Ballet, and I hope that these works showcase our ballet company as something truly remarkable.