Dances With Drones: Breaking Ground Dance Festival Goes High-Tech

Evelyn Toh performs in Fragment for NobleMotion Dance.
Evelyn Toh performs in Fragment for NobleMotion Dance. Lynn Lane
A short tripod sat center stage at Tempe Center for the Arts recently, facing a large projection screen at the back of the stage. Soon, a lone female dancer set her gaze on the object atop it – the camera that projected multiple image of her body, one behind the other, as she moved gracefully across the stage.

It was opening night for this year’s Breaking Ground, which struck just the right balance of technology with movement. Carley Conder, artistic director for contemporary dance company CONDER/dance, launched the annual dance and film festival in 2007. It’s presented an intriguing mix of contemporary dance choreography ever since.

This year, technology took center stage.

That first dance was Fragments, performed on Friday, January 23. It was choreographed by Andy Noble with Dionne Sparkman Noble, whose work is elegant and uncluttered. They’re co-artistic directors for NobleMotion Dance, which Houston Press just named that city’s best dance company.

Fragments comprises two duets exploring memory distortion. The first couples a woman with live projections of her own image; the second pairs the same dancer with a male partner who shares her gift for expressive vulnerability.

click to enlarge NobleMotion Dance performs Fragment. - LYNN LANE
NobleMotion Dance performs Fragment.
Lynn Lane
Saturday’s program included NobleMotion Dance's Drone, in which a drone hovers over the stage, its loud hum permeating the darkness that envelops the dancers. Their movements reflect the ways technology intrudes on privacy while modifying thinking, emotion, and behavior.

There’s nothing revolutionary about this approach, of course. Creatives have long explored the boundaries between humans and machines, which grow more tenuous as time goes by. But some artists are more successful than others, creating works that embrace technology in authentic ways rather than adding technology to the mix as a means of making their work more trendy. Recently, Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway has been a strong example of getting it right.

Here, the Houston-based choreographers imbue technology with human-like properties, prompting reflection on whether machines are capable of artistry in their own right. It’s a democratizing approach, which imagines humans and technology as co-creators rather than technology as a mere tool for intellectual colonization.

It’s not the first time technology has seeped into the Breaking Ground ethos. Back in 2016, Carley Conder collaborated with filmmaker Perry Allen on a piece called Map of Broken Glass, which explored the shifting, evolving nature of identity within digital culture. The dance included live footage from an iPhone operated by two dancers, who trained the device on themselves, fellow dancers, and the audience.

The following year, Breaking Ground included three excerpts of Me, My Quantified Self, and I. Jessica Rajko choreographed that piece, using movement, lasers, and a large-scale web knitted by community members to tackle the intersection of big data with individual lives and communities.

click to enlarge Breaking Ground 2019 included a NobleMotion Dance drone performance. - LYNN LANE
Breaking Ground 2019 included a NobleMotion Dance drone performance.
Lynn Lane
Although technology was the standout, it didn’t dominate this year’s lineup. Conder’s work often explores the intersection of identity and the digital ecosystem, but she made a significant shift for this year’s festival. Collaborating with dancers, Conder choreographed Feels Like Breaking Up, informed by rapid changes in her father's health that prompted her to consider "what it might feel like to lose access to those things that make us feel alive." Here, viewers witnessed Conder’s facility for moving between conceptual and visceral realms.

Breaking Ground featured several additional premieres, including Eric Handman’s Weight of Dust, Kalin Green’s Ken, Hawkinsdance’s Crystal Cave, and a piece by Mac Allen titled i don't want to keep opening and closing doors. i'm tired of losing things. The festival also included a pair of dance films. Dancers infuse public spaces with movement in Autumn Eckman’s film called Mother of All Time, which lays bare the symbiosis between contemporary dance and its cultural context. In Suzanne Beahrs’ Parting Light, a dancer moves alone through an isolated desert landscape.

Tiny Dances returned this year, co-curated by Conder and Nicole Olson. They’re short works by Arizona choreographers, performed atop 4-by-4-foot stages. Callista Mincks, Gina Ricker, and Caitlin Wichlacz delivered particularly strong pieces.

But this year’s standout was First Flight, which was choreographed by Bridgette Borzillo, and danced by Alexander Patrick and Keanna Agustin. Together, they delivered beautiful lines and compelling movement, plus strong and graceful partnering. Here, technology wouldn’t have added much to the impact.

Even so, questions of technology will likely persist far into the future. Phoenix audiences are fortunate to have Conder, and other choreographers, who take seriously the task of exploring what pervasive technology means for individuals and communities — both now and moving forward.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble