New Dance Work Uses Innovative Wearable Tech To Comment On Bodies In The Digital Age

May 11, 2018

Maybe you know how Bill Shannon feels: addicted to your newsfeed, feeling constantly pressured to keep up, all day long.

TOUCH UPDATE is performed at 8 p.m. Fri., May 11, and 8 p.m. Fri., May 12, at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, in East Liberty. Admission is pay-what-makes-you-happy. For more information, see www.kelly-strayhorn.org

“You wake up in the morning and you check your Twitter feed and then you look at your Facebook and your Instagram, and you're literally like feeling crushed, you know,” he said.

Many critics have noted that online interactions both bring us together and divide us, but Shannon is unusually suited to comment. As an internationally known, Pittsburgh-based performer and choreographer, he works in the most embodied art form. And for the past year-and-a-half, as a resident artist at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, he’s been working on a piece that explores how we relate to our bodies in the digital age.

Touch Update, a unique blend of dance and innovative wearable technology, world-premieres May 11 and 12 as part of the Kelly-Strayhorn’s newMoves dance festival. The 70-minute work incorporates four performers plus a video sculpture and video masks, both of the latter designed and built by Shannon himself.

Touch Update was about moving toward the physical contact,” he said. “What does it mean to be really connecting to people around you, and how the Internet has this duality of both alienating us and allowing this sort of real distancing and fracturing, while at the same time connecting us in ways that were previously impossible.”

The piece has sections with working titles like like “Point and Click,” “Swipe Left” and “Ball and Chain Laptop.” As seen during rehearsal 10 days before the premiere performance, one sequence finds a character played by dancer Teena Custer working on a keyboard, then escaping a house fire in slow motion, with a movement style incorporating the street dance for which Shannon is partly known.

The video elements were not yet part of rehearsal, but look promising. The video sculpture consists of a tree-like metal frame with seven screens that will show various views of whichever performer is using it. The masks are especially notable: They are headpieces that incorporate a camera, miniature projector and multi-faceted rear-projection screen. What shows on the screen, as mounted on a dancer’s head, are multiple simultaneous close-up views of that performer’s face. The effect is somewhat cubist, and rather bizarre. (There’s a video preview here.)

This tech, which Shannon has been developing for year, is his response to how video is usually used in dance -- as either a backdrop or as a spectacle in itself.

“I’ve seen these dance performances where the video is interactive and it’s just taking over,” he said. “It's almost like the dancer could like die on stage and lay there and there would still be a great show happening. So I felt like there's got to be a better way to use video in relationship to the physical body that makes the body the preeminent source.”

“I like how he really tries to use the human body and the human presence to bring his technical art to life,” says Taylor Knight, one of four locally based dancers in the production. The others include Custer, Anna Thompson (Knight’s partner in dance troupe SlowDanger) and Ron Chunn. Knight also did the principal sound design for Touch Update.

Shannon grew up partly in Pittsburgh and moved back more than a decade ago. But he’s still probably better known outside of the city than in it. He first gained fame in the 1990s for his performances that incorporated street dance, skateboarding and rocker-bottomed crutches – the latter of which he also used in daily life due to a degenerative hip condition. His performance and choreography work and video art is known around the world, including his work for Cirque du Soleil.

Much of Shannon’s work critiques society’s relationship to people with disabilities. Touch Update incorporates a fairly subtle commentary on that theme. Shannon has long objected to how critics and audiences have responded to his performances -- highlighting the disability rather than the artist, or even attributing his creativity to his condition. The typical take, he says, was that “I dance to overcome a disability or, you know, ‘He used his disability to make a spectacle of himself.’”

To address such misunderstandings, for Touch Update, Shannon taught his movement style to the four dancers without disabilities, who perform without crutches. Thompson said it’s been a challenge.

“We go into it with our own history of movement styles that live in our bodies so it’s a process of reprogramming our reflexes to this completely different physics that he has that we don’t have,” she said.

Touch Update premieres with performances Friday and Saturday.