'Chimaera' by Enda Grennan and Angie Smalis as part of Limerick Unfringed

'Chimaera' by Enda Grennan and Angie Smalis as part of Limerick Unfringed

The Kinect for X-Box 360 has changed gaming by replacing dexterous thumbs with all-body movement. Its motion-sensing technology can also be increasingly found in theatres. And for good reason: for little more than €100, it can do a job that used to cost thousands. Dancer Angie Smalis and composer Enda Grennan are the latest Irish-based artists to harness its capabilities in Chimæra, a duet for Smalis and the Kinect. Under the hood, Grennan programmed a virtual environment in which the dancer controlled her surroundings and, paradoxically, the surroundings controlled her.

Chimæra is the latest Irish dance production that allies the live body with technology. The recent surge in activity is clearly caused by the falling price of computing power and peripheries, which has led to the so-called “democratisation of technology”. Advocates point to the fact that if the price of a car decreased as much as the price of computing power between 1970 and 2000, then you could now buy a car for about five euro. According to Klaus Obermaier, who featured in this year’s Dublin Dance Festival, productions that used to cost four and five digit sums can now be mounted with a €10 webcam and open-source software. The festival also hosted the Dancing with Fire symposium, organised with the Arts Technology Research Lab and the Trinity College’s Digital Arts and Humanities programme, where participants advocated innovative interaction between the arts and technology sector rather than an over-emphasis on technology.

It’s a trait that is happily found in Chimæra. Rather than fetishise the technology, Smalis’ dancing body is to the forefront. Of course, it’s difficult to fetishise technology that is now in most people’s living rooms, a happy by-product of the democratisation of technology. Dressed in white, Smalis slowly rises from sitting on a white cube to stand in the centre of the stage, a zone where every movement, indeed her very being, triggers sound and video projections. Initial movements are tentative – tiny shifts in weight between one foot and the other or hands reaching out into the space as if to get their bearings in an unfamiliar environment.

Rather than dazzle the audience with full-frontal projections, videos are beamed onto piled white cubes on either side of the stage. Fiona Ryan’s design isn’t just understated, but it also places Smalis in a more restricted environment. Physically hemmed in, she spurned the obvious interaction with different levels offered by the piles of cubes, but concentrates on sensing and searching within the flat, ground-based technological cage.

And it is a cage. Not just visually from the wires strung across the front of the stage, but mostly by the Kinect suspended Big Brother-like in front of the action. It seems to eyeball every moment and, throughout the dance, becomes a more malevolent presence, stifling the live body’s range of expression. Smalis constantly returns to a neutral position – legs splayed straight, leaning forward with her elbows on the floor. Immediately recognisable, the stationary image separates the action into broad paragraphs. Rising from this position, she continually attempts to feel her way out of her restriction.

Chimæra is an accomplished work, not least because there is evident fluency in the collaboration between the artists. The various elements happily co-exist without competing. No one dominates and the creative team have kept its focus on the dialectic between the live, breathing body and the technology.

But ultimately, the work is inconclusive as to the relationship. In the end Smalis returns to sitting on the white cube, as in the beginning. Despite the rhetoric of the interaction, there is an ambiguous resolution: is Smalis defeated by the all-pervading technology? Or has she fore-fronted the primacy of the living body?

As with Codes, another dance/technology collaboration by MIDASpaces that premiered during the Absolut Fringe, our relationship with technology was merely problematised and broader issues were ignored. It was a shame, because there was evidence of deep engagement finding common ground at a technical level, but less evidence of engagement at a conceptual level.

 Michael Seaver is dance critic with The Irish Times

  • Review
  • Theatre

Chimaera by Enda Grennan and Angie Smalis

21 & 22 Oct 2012

Produced by Enda Grennan and Angie Smalis as part of Limerick Unfringed
In Belltable Arts Centre

Dance: Angie Smalis
Software Design and Music Composition: Enda Grennan
Visuals: Patrick Cusack
Set and Costume Design: Fiona Ryan
Lighting Design: David O’Brien