Nothing But Net

Quit your fussing or I'm going to drop you: Shapiro & Smith Dance
Erik Saulitas

Imagine dancing with someone in another country without leaving your studio in Minneapolis. Sounds like the stuff of science fiction. But Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith, co-artistic directors of their 17-year-old troupe Shapiro & Smith, actually had this experience last fall. Under the auspices of the University of Florida-Gainesville Digital World Institute's Dancing Beyond Boundaries project, the choreographers--joined by some 100 network engineers, computer scientists, dancers and musicians--presented an international concert at the Super Computing Conference in Denver. Shapiro led a group of dancers on site while Smith and others joined the high-quality audio and video stream live from the University of Minnesota's Barbara Barker Center for Dance. Gainesville-based dancers and the musicians of Mestre Boca at the University of Campinas in Brazil rounded out the list of performers. Large-screen projections in Denver showcased the different locations and Shapiro assisted in mixing the camera shots to create an immediate, ever-changing performance transmitted via cyberspace.

The event was made possible through Internet2, a nonprofit consortium of universities and corporations experimenting with new technologies to shape the future of the Internet. "It's like moving from pony express to supersonic jets," marvels Shapiro over the phone from a tour stop in Atlanta. The self-proclaimed techno geek reports that Internet2 makes DSL look positively pokey. "You can transmit motion video over the Internet with no second or half-second delay....Our role as artists is to discover what the communication potential is [for this technology]."

For the time being, Shapiro and Smith--who are also married--have found that the current Internet configuration, albeit not as flashy as Internet2's technology, is helpful to artistic collaborators. Witness the making of "A Late Frost," a dance dedicated to what Smith describes as the "lightness, impermanence, and slipperiness" of winter imagery, which premieres this weekend at the Southern Theater. Instead of following the time-honored tradition of sending video and audiotapes by overnight mail to composer Scott Killian, a Minnesotan now based in New York City, the artists now employ the Web.

"I [record] the day's rehearsal on digital video, plug it into the Mac, push it onto our Web site and send it to Scott," explains Shapiro. "Then we're on his screen, he downloads it, and he replaces the audio track on our video [with his composition] or he sends an MP3 file. It's increasing our dialogue." Smith adds that the introduction of technology into the creative process has led to a closer working relationship despite the miles between them. "Danny and I have done 20 pieces with Scott. He's such a valuable collaborator and we work so well together on a moment-to-moment basis," she says. "But when we moved to Minneapolis from New York seven years ago, we lost that. Now we've reestablished that intimacy--which is hilarious, because I'm a complete technophobe."

"We're moving into a place that's becoming very worthwhile," says Shapiro, who notes that other choreographers like Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones have been experimenting with the relationship between technology and dance in recent years. Minnesota is also home to the Dance Partners project, a distance-learning tool that brings dance classes from Ballet Arts Minnesota at the Hennepin Center for the Arts in downtown Minneapolis to high schools around the state on low-speed lines.

As for the future, Shapiro concludes that anything is possible as long as raw computing power is available. Holographic technology and virtual-reality goggles could one day make seeing a New York City Ballet performance at Lincoln Center a reality for those who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity. Nothing will ever replace the immediacy of live performance and the personal connections made through face-to-face artistic collaboration. But the visceral world of dance is certainly ready, and willing, to get wired.

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