UI's 'Feburary Dance' to be digitally interactive

UI's 'Feburary Dance' to be digitally interactive

URBANA — At most plays or concerts, a disembodied voice from behind the stage sternly tells you to turn off your cellphone and other electronic devices.

But at "February Dance: Designed Environments" this weekend at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, you will be invited to enter the Colwell Playhouse with your cellphones out — and on.

And if you haven't already downloaded the CM2=E app, you'll be given time to do that so you can use it during the first piece, "Critical Mass."

"Why is it so hard to get people to turn off their smartphones?" said John Toenjes, who collaborated on "Critical Mass" with others, including choreographer Chad Michael Hall of Multiplex Dance in Los Angeles. "It's because it's such an engaging experience. We use that to get people engaged with what's going on on stage."

Using the app, some of the audience members will see on their cellphone screens an invitation to join the dancers on stage. The invites will keep coming.

"Hopefully we'll have a lot of people on stage and a lot of chaos — a system overload," Toenjes said.

Other ways the app (instructions will be included) may be used:

— You may push a button to hear the solo dancers talk about how they feel about social media and why they were motivated to make the moves they are making on stage.

"We expect a lot of cacophony — we're hoping for it," Toenjes said.

That part of the app also enriches the audience, as many viewers of modern dance don't quite understand what the movements mean, he added.

— Audience members may project their own text or selfies onto the surfaces of a large cube in the center of the stage.

"The cube represents technology, in a way. It communicates with the phones," Toenjes said.

He likened the communication to that between earthlings and the huge alien spaceship in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Toenjes said the cube also can be seen as a reference to the monolith in the opening scenes of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

— Some of the music by composer Ken Beck for "Critical Mass" will come through the cellphones as well as through the house loudspeakers.

— In one section of "Critical Mass," four couples will dance duets. Audience members may use the app to vote for their favorite dancing duo.

"The focus of the dance moves to the winners and proceeds from there," Toenjes said. "The dance can be different every night, depending on who's chosen. That's a trajectory we want to explore in the future. We're very interested in how the audience interacts with the dancers. And the stage has this cube, which is an art installation. It's drawing the focus away from the dancers."

— Sometimes a dark graphic will appear on the smartphone screens as a signal for the audience members to focus on the dancers on stage.

"In the theater, we have certain needs that go counter to what people do with their phones," Toenjes said. "There are times we want people's phones to black out so they watch what's going on on stage.

A pioneer in the use of mobile devices and apps in live performance, Toenjes said the aesthetic behind it is something he and his collaborators continue to experiment with.

"There's just no history on which to base what we should be doing, what the most appropriate ways to use the app are," he said.

This is the fourth app Toenjes and his collaborators have developed over the past two and a half years or so for live performances. One of the first was for the UI dance department's 2014 February Dance piece "Kama Begata Nihilum."

It featured a smartphone app that flashed colors on cue and displayed augmented reality to audience members as they pointed their phones at the backdrop behind a giant robot called "iPad Man." Dancers used multiple networked iPads and the custom app developed for the performance.

That piece was conceived by Toenjes and produced with the help of programmer Tony Reimer, composer Ken Beck and choreographer Janice Dulak. Reimer also created the content for the "Critical Mass" app, starting the work with students at the UI's National Center for Supercomputing Applications and then finishing the work himself.

The popularity of "Kama Begata Nihilum" led to Toenjes establishing at the UI the Laboratory for Audience Interactive Technologies (LAIT).

"For the past year and a half, we have been working on an innovative information delivery application for use in live performance events," he wrote at the LAIT website. "This system consists of three parts: a mobile app, an event server and a content creator. It allows a producer to show content on a live event attendee's phone instantaneously, on cue, in real time."

Toenjes said the app is designed to be flexible.

"The content can change, but the app remains the same," he said. "Once you download the app, you can keep it in your phone. Once the app is fully mature, you can use it for the next show."

Now in his 15th year at the UI, Toenjes is director of music and co-director of the undergraduate program in the Department of Dance. He's also co-director, with Donna Cox, of the Illinois eDream Institute, which is dedicated to promoting arts that are conceived, created and conveyed through digital technologies.

If you go

What: Dance at Illinois presents "February Dance: Designed Environments," featuring dances by UI dance professors Renee Wadleigh and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol; visiting choreographer Chad Hall and dance department music director John Toenjes; and graduate student Charli Brissey.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Where: Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U.

Tickets: $23 for adults; $21, senior citizens 65 and older and retired UI faculty and staff; $17, non-UI college students; and $10, current, full-time UI students and youths high school age and younger.

Information: 333-6280 or krannertcenter.com.

Extras: Dessert and conversation with the choreographers, 6:30 p.m. Friday, Krannert Room, Krannert Center. Tickets: $7.

App info: To download the app for the Chad Hall-John Toenjes piece "Critical Mass," go to lait.ncsa.illinois.edu/get-the-lait-app/.


Besides "Critical Mass," three other pieces will be presented at the Dance at Illinois "February Dance: Designed Environments":

-- "Therapoda," created by graduate student choreographer Charli Brissey, explores the intersections of nature and culture in human and non-human social spaces. Fourteen dancers traverse shifting physical and sonic landscapes that slide from Jurassic forests to surreal deserts to queer night clubs — sometimes all at once.

-- Professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol's "In the String Room" investigates shifting spaces and ambiguous borderlines and how they affect the way people perceive movement and image. With the piece, Nettl-Fiol reimagines one of her earlier works in collaboration with her daughter and dance photographer Natalie Fiol.

-- "The Quench" by Professor Renee Wadleigh features vestiges of her past works while considering what residue of that work continues to influence her current projects.