Meredith Rainey, artistic director of Carbon Dance Theatre, wants to adjust the arm of Homer, one of his performers. Things aren’t working quite right — when Homer raises an arm, it nearly beans another dancer on the forehead. Making the adjustment is more complicated than the usual touch or word, though, because Homer is the playful name Rainey has given to the system of robotic arms used in Science per Forms, a new work that explores relationships between digital technology, robotics and dance.
At this rehearsal, certain details of the production — set in the lab of a mad scientist experimenting with cyborgs — are still being worked out, including Homer’s programming. The Kinect camera system needs fine-tuning, too. This gizmo creates projections derived from movement caught in its field of rays, and the plan is to set it up to project silhouettes of audience members as they enter the theater. “We’re hoping to put it on a lag time, so when you sit down you can see yourself,” says Rainey, who adds that the effect plays on “the whole idea of who’s watching who, and that technology is always present.”
Dealing with these and other high-tech gadgets is a long way from Rainey’s professional training in classical ballet. He danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet for 19 years; after retiring from the company in 2006, he decided to step up his game as a choreographer. “I’m trying to do something that’s different from where I came from,” he says. “I feel there’s that ballet audience, and there’s that postmodern or modern audience, and they sort of butt heads. I don’t understand why, because I go to both and I love it and I think everybody else would. So I feel like I’m trying to bridge a gap … you can be a little bit of both.”
Rainey’s keen to investigate different modes of movement, and his efforts have been well received — he took the top prize in the 2011 A.W.A.R.D. Show!: Philadelphia, a competitive showcase of local dancemakers, and Carbon is now a resident company at Drexel University. Success hasn’t gone to the man’s head, though. Unlike in his former world of classical ballet, where a choreographer tends to serve as a dictator of steps for dancers to follow, collaboration is key to Carbon’s process.
Science combines the talents of several collaborators — if we think of the piece as a cyborg, half human and half machine, Carbon artistic associate Marcel Williams Foster might be thought of as the consultant on the human side. Foster’s background includes theater, dance and a stint with the Jane Goodall Institute’s Center for Primate Studies, and his long-standing interest in anthropology and human-animal behavior is a big influence on his work.
“It’s an exploration of the fact that in order to be human, it means having an intimate relationship to some kind of complex technology,” explains Foster. “How we live biologically now depends on the tools that we develop.” Hence the robot arms, the Kinect system and other digital devices employed in the production. These tools are indeed complex, and they required Carbon to bring in a team of technologists, including Simon Kim, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design.
If Foster is the human side, Kim would be the corresponding robot side. An architect who’s consulted with Gehry Technologies, Kim did post-grad work at MIT on cybernetics and co-directs Penn’s Immersive Kinematics research group, a blending of architecture and engineering focusing on “integrating robotics, interaction and embedded intelligence in our buildings, cities and cultures.” He’s excited about the possibilities of pairing high-tech and human dancers, and hopes it could change the way the audience thinks about the future possibilities of robotics. “There’s something about robots that perhaps is frightening or off-putting; somehow there’s a little bit of resistance culturally,” Simon says. “When an audience that is perhaps not versed in robotics sees the arms moving, we don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, it’s a robot, and not part of us.’ We want them to see that, one, it’s dancing very well, and, two, it’s interacting with human performers.”
Science doesn’t take it as far as artificial intelligence — Homer must be reprogrammed, not merely asked to avoid beaning the other dancer — but Foster hopes the piece does get folks thinking about the increasingly blurry line between man and machine. “I just want the audience to think more critically about their relationship with technology and how that relationship with technology really does impact their identity.”
Rainey, on the other hand, has more down-to-earth hopes for what the audience will come away with. “I’m very much a pragmatist. I want to entertain them, and I want them to be in love with what they see and find some beauty in it besides the thought.”
Through Oct. 28, $15-$25, Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., 267-423-4238, carbondancetheatre.org.