Melissa Merli: There's an app for that dance

Melissa Merli: There's an app for that dance

The University of Illinois dance department's dances tend to be hyper-conceptual. But that wasn't the case last week.

February Dance, presented over three nights at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, featured solid movement without the usual postmodern twists.

And the dance majors — there are more young men than usual — were solid.

All four pieces were fun to watch. The most memorable, though, was John Toenjes' and Janice Dulak's "Kama Begata Nihilum" — one of the best integrations of technology and arts that I've yet seen.

Toenjes, an interactive performance artist and director of music for the dance department, came up with the structure. His wife, Dulak, a professional dancer, helped with the choreography.

"Kama Begata Nihilum" — we'll get to its meaning later — featured seven dancers in fluorescent skeleton costumes, carrying iPads that were lowered to them from the ceiling.

The piece de resistance was the 12-foot-tall "iPad Man" that also descended from the Colwell Playhouse ceiling and hovered over the stage. A screen in iPad Man's torso showed images, including portraits of the dancers.

The portraits also appeared on the dancers' iPad screens, and abstract images were projected on a large screen at the back of the stage.

The dance opened with a campfire scene in which the dancers enjoyed "a little ritual moment," Toenjes told me later.

"They were touching each other, holding each other so they could go out and do their special moves. Through the rest of the dance, they don't touch. Their reality becomes more communicating through screens. At the end, they link up and see the world and their reality through their screens.

"It's a little bit of a morality tale."

Before the dance started, Toenjes invited audience members to download to their smartphones an augmented reality app. The technology buff believes his was the first dance to feature an augmented reality app for phones; he worked with the UI's National Center for Supercomputing Applications to develop it.

Toenjes feels that overall his collaborative dance went over pretty well — except for the fact not all of the people in the audience who wanted to could access the server to download the app.

Krannert Director Mike Ross also was apologetic about it but said it was a minor glitch, considering the big picture.

"Even without the audience app, the role of the technology in the hands of the performers themselves was highly creative and effective," he said. "The whole experience felt fresh and boundary breaking."

So what does "Kama Begata Nihilum" mean? Toenjes made it up as a vague reference to the phrase "Klaatu barada nikto" from the 1951 sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

"Kama is an Indian word meaning desire as in Kama Sutra," he said. "Begata is a Latin word meaning begets. And Nihilum is one of nihilism's shades of meaning — the possibility that reality does not really exist." Also, Nihilum is an online World of Warcraft game "guild," which Toenjes thought was kind of cool.

"Kama Begata Nihilum" is the first official performance by NOTABLE — the New Order Tablet Ensemble. Toenjes and dance department staff musician Ken Beck direct the group.

NOTABLE received a College of Fine and Applied Arts Creative Research Award grant last year.

Stage One of the project was an advanced choreography class that investigated the use of iPads in performance. Stage Two will be the establishment of NOTABLE.

Because Toenjes explored iPads in February Dance, he had students perform the dance rather than establish a NOTABLE performing group now.

"The next step is for us to actually form NOTABLE as an ongoing performance ensemble to experiment with and present works, with the thought that it will become a campus performance ensemble, complete with academic credit," he said.

As you likely know, the UI has long stressed interdisciplinary projects and education. Edward Feser, dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts, told me Toenjes' dance is an example of what the university wants to see.

Ross, who's seen plenty of arts and technology pieces, also praised "Kama Begata Nihilum."

"It was the most holistically conceived and successful performance work I've yet seen that incorporates iPad/mobile app technologies in a substantive way," Ross said.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at