Israel’s digital dancers take leap into future
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Israel’s digital dancers take leap into future

Maria Kong’s newest performance, ‘Open Source,’ promises to marry digital technology with traditional dance movements in a one of a kind show

Ori Ben-Shabat, wearing a pair of digital gloves at a performance (Photo credit: Marijn Alders)
Ori Ben-Shabat, wearing a pair of digital gloves at a performance (Photo credit: Marijn Alders)

An Israeli dance company that specializes in combining digital technology and art will be previewing a new show, which for the first time lets dancers create a performance that seamlessly matches music and movement – using a one of a kind digital glove that lets dancers interface with a whole range of digital equipment, right from the stage. “There’s no way you could choreograph this in advance,” according to Ori Ben-Shabat, the technology director of the Maria Kong Dance Company and creator of the glove. “The glove lets performers match their movements to the music spontaneously, essentially letting them control the music, lighting, and other elements for a spontaneous and one of a kind performance.”

It’s a tall order, but if anyone can marry digital technology to dance, it’s Ben-Shabat, who spent years in Hollywood working on special effects in movies like The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, Watchmen, and others. “In each movie I worked on something else, sometimes the funny stuff, sometimes when we need a wolf to eat a vampire, that kind of thing.” But over the years, Ben-Shabat has learned a thing or two about digital technology, and he has applied it to his work with Maria Kong, where he has an opportunity to get involved in live performance, which he far prefers over movies, he told the Times of Israel.

Maria Kong, founded in 2008, is a relatively new dance company, made up mostly of dancers who formerly performed with the Batsheva Dance Company. From the beginning, the troupe has attempted to integrate digital elements in its performances, said Ben-Shabat. “I have worked with Maria Kong on several shows, the first one being Fling, in which we built a 3D mapping projection on stage, which made for a great optical effect.” After that, Ben-Shabat decamped to Canada, where he worked on special effects for several movies, but returned to Israel to work on Maria Kong’s next show, Nano, which they performed at the Drupa 2012 show in Germany earlier this year. Accompanying Israeli printing innovator Benny Landa as he announced a new nanographic printing system, the troupe used Ben-Shabat’s digital glove to control the music in the show, matching the selections to the movements with a wave of their hand.

And now in the company’s new show, called Open Source, the glove plays a much more prominent role, allowing dancers to match the mood – lighting, music, and other elements – to their movements. While such coordination could be choreographed to a certain extent, there’s only so much a choreographer can do, said Ben-Shabat; and the more complicated a scene, the more likely it is to fall apart when something goes wrong. With the glove, the performance flows much more smoothly, because performers can respond to what other dancers are doing without having to remember when to do what and in which order. “In fact, the glove really ensures that each performance will be unique, because performers can vary their routines and still have everything coordinate,” said Ben-Shabat. In that sense, the show is truly “digital,” he added.

The glove itself is full of wifi and other sensors, allowing motions and gestures to control different aspects of the environment. The glove can be adapted to communicate with any digital source, whether music, lighting, computer, etc. Ben-Shabat himself will be on stage, using the glove, in the role of “the wizard,” who helps a woman set to get married to understand her choices before the big day. Depending on the success of Open Source, Ben-Shabat said that the glove – or, perhaps, other articles of clothing equipped with this unique technology – could be utilized in other shows, or perhaps produced for use by other companies. “I find the idea of being able to marry digital technology to dance very magical,” Ben-Shabat said. “It’s like being part of a live video game. This is not a gimmick, but an experience, and, I believe, it will transform out understanding of dance and other live performances.”

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