College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Illuminating artistic possibilities

At a fundamental level, a unique research collaboration in the Patti & Rusty Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance involves programming wearable movement sensors that allow performers to control the stage lighting schemes.

And yet the project is about so much more than that.

The research that Rich Dionne, a clinical assistant professor and technical director in the Rueff School, is conducting with Division of Dance instructors Renee Murray and Kathleen Hickey and visiting assistant professor of costume design Erin Carignan allows the collaborators to reimagine what is possible on the stage.

“Of course I find the hardware and software stuff fascinating, as evidenced by the piles of hardware all over my desk,” said Dionne, the project’s technological mastermind. “But the project has caused us to have to think differently about rehearsal and performance. Not even just about authorship and control, but how does the whole creative process work with technology?”

For choreographers Murray and Hickey, how can the dancer convey a story by affecting the light’s color, brightness, or direction?

Which performer should control the light changes?

How can they encourage artistic growth from their dancers, allowing them space to improvise as they interact with the lights and fellow performers?

And how can they make the audience aware the dancer is manipulating the stage atmosphere?

“We’re interacting with lighting through our exploration process,” Murray said. “Hopefully not just layering it on top so it’s not just an interesting design element, but that it becomes integral to the piece so that the dancers are in conversation with the lighting throughout the process.”

That has been the premise of the experiment since Dionne, Murray, and Hickey first decided to collaborate in 2015, but their November 2016 debut performance using the technology made it clear that exploring the marriage between art and technology would require further innovative thought. They also needed to stray from the conventional path that connects rehearsals to the formal performance.

Most of the heavy lifting for a dance or theatre production is done in the studio or rehearsal room. There, directors and their actors or dancers iron out details well before they transfer the piece to the performance stage. It’s nearly a finished product once onstage rehearsals begin, with technical workers who manage light and sound joining the artists to apply finishing touches prior to opening night.

Only after their debut performance did the collaborators realize that a traditional approach would not suit their specific needs. They needed to choreograph and rehearse the pieces while using the sensor-connected lights, and they needed to involve technical specialists in the creative process from the very beginning, not only at the end.

“Kat and Renee were developing choreography in a vacuum,” Dionne said. “They were imagining what would happen with the sensors they had instead of actually working with them. Well, when the dancers are interacting with the lighting or the sound or the video, you can’t wait until the end. So one of the first things we did after that performance was to put some lighting instruments in the dance studio so that as they’re working on exploring what the choreography could be, they would have access to the light fixtures that could be controlled and some of the sensory devices.

“It seems obvious in retrospect, that if you’re going to dance with the technology, you need to practice with the technology. But it didn’t occur to us because you sort of live in the assumptions you live in.”

Theatre lighting MFA student Allison Newhard could make a similar statement about her previous approach to her responsibilities. She had never participated in such an outside-the-box project before, and can now admit having felt somewhat insulted that it took away her control over the lights and handed it to the performers.

However, as her familiarity with the project grew, she became inspired by the new ways she could affect the presentation of each work.

“We felt a little like our jobs were being taken away because they were putting the design in the control of the choreographers,” Newhard said. “If they wanted the light to tilt a certain way, they’d move their arm a certain way. So all of a sudden, they were really the designers.

“But it opened up a whole new world of now I can sit there and think, ‘Well, what do I want each sensor to control? What kind of attributes can each sensor control?’ And that got us to a whole different side of design.”

As is often the case with a new venture, the 2016 debut came with its share of technical hiccups. The DIY wearable technology can be finicky at times. Syncing the sensors with the lights is complicated, and the interface does not always work as intended. And the collaborators had to scrap an ambitious plan to perform to music that an AI algorithm composed instantaneously based upon data it received from the body sensors.

In its infancy, as remains the case, the project required patience from all involved.

“With every experiment you have a hypothesis, and that first hypothesis sort of gave us what we wanted, but not entirely,” Hickey said. “So now we have learned from that first process of research, and we’re trying to do it in a different way and look at it through a different lens. Now it’s really about what can the technology do? How does interacting with the technology serve the dance, and how can we immerse ourselves completely?”

Even if the research can occasionally become frustrating, with two technical steps forward and one step backward, the collaborators agree that it has advanced significantly since the first performance.

The lights’ presence in the studio has given Murray and Hickey time to explore ideas with their dance students, and Dionne has made enormous strides developing the software that allows the sensors and lights to communicate.

Credit Puja Mittal for some of the technical progress, as well.

Hickey happened to notice Mittal wearing a Purdue Hackers T-shirt in a dance class two years ago and asked the senior in computer science whether she would be interested in helping Dionne author more advanced software code.

“I was like, ‘This is the coolest project that I’ve ever heard of. I would absolutely love to talk to the professor,’” Mittal said.

Their partnership resulted in a more polished software infrastructure that expanded the possibilities for performers to affect the environment on stage.

“Puja really revolutionized the program that we’re using and the technology that we’re using,” Hickey said. “I’m sure she will be kinder about our technology, but I feel like she brought us from the Dark Ages to now. She’s wonderful.”

Her involvement has benefited Mittal, as well, and not just because it offered a chance to develop her programming skills. She is also one of the dancers who perform with the sensor technology.

“Being able to feel like, ‘I built this and now I’m performing with it’ is honestly a dream come true,” Mittal said. “It’s nothing short of that.”

Where the project goes next is still to be determined. Murray and Hickey are planning an informal performance this fall, with a more structured exhibition to follow in the spring.

And as they work toward those performances, they also contemplate what might become of their work in the future.

Murray and Hickey continue to experiment with their students on the many ways they can allow performers to control the stage environment and respond to any changes.

Mittal would love to see it developed into a home version that a user could program from a laptop.

“There are so many more options then,” she said. “It’s not just these five dancers that have access to this technology, it’s the world. And then whatever can be made with that, that expands it so much more.”

And Dionne sees the technology eventually becoming useful for traditional theatre performances, where actors wearing sensors or smart fabrics can affect the stage conditions. He also hopes to hand the technology over to other dance companies, allowing them to add their own twists to what the Purdue group has accomplished.

As another example of the innovation that is taking place in the newly renamed Rueff School — which added “design” to its title in June to recognize the school’s cutting-edge design program — the collaboration’s future possibilities are seemingly endless.

“I feel like because we’re such an investigatory and exploratory school, with this idea of imagination and where we can go and how we can still provide inspiration to our students, the glory of this collaboration is that it is ongoing with every new idea,” Hickey said. “There are always things to learn and there are always things to ask, ‘OK, what’s behind this curtain and what’s behind that curtain? Keep going.’”