Associate Professor and Department Vice Chair of TDPS Lisa Wymore is Co-artistic Director of Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts with Sheldon B. Smith. Recently appointed artists-in-residence at ODC Theater San Francisco, they are working on their newest production “Zero Return.” Lisa’s interests lie in the intersection between technology and dance performance. Below, Lisa elaborates on her passions and her projects.
Can you tell us about Disappearing Acts?
Disappearing Acts is a collective with my husband and partner Sheldon Smith. We started the company in Chicago years ago and have been in the Bay Area since 2004. Over the years we’ve added a new collaborator, Ian Heisters (a technologist, dancer and improviser), and we often perform with James Graham (a TDPS alumnus) and Peiling Kao (a Bay Area dancer).
Sheldon and I founded the company because we were interested in layering video with performance. We engage with video, sound, and digital elements and also use Kinect cameras(1) to look at gesture movement through space in three dimensions. Ian is a more formal computer programmer, and he uses programs like Open Sound Control and Python to build more complicated algorithms to expand our interactive performances.
Recently we did a piece called Number Zero: A Space Opera, a fun take on a group of people living in space after “the singularity”(2) takes place, where the human race is being partially controlled by computer interfaces and is deeply embedded in relationships with computer intelligence. The piece draws on sci-fi tropes used in iconic films such as Logan’s Run and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What project are you working on currently?
Well, out of Number Zero: A Space Opera came the score Zero Return (0⏎). The score is a program that takes our names, puts them in a cache, and uses an algorithm to draw them out and issue commands. For example, the program will say Ian, step into the space, and Ian will then create a series of movements in the space. Then the program says Return and Ian retraces his steps to his original place and attempts to re-perform the same set of actions. At any point the program can be triggered to have the performers start remembering their improvised movements; this is denoted by the command “Zero,” which acts like a kind of bookmark on the movement phrase. The “Return” command requires that the dancer return to the beginning of the movement phrase and repeat it using memory and sensation.
The program and algorithm change over time, eventually giving commands like Wrestle Sheldon to the floor or Lisa, go away or Ian, stand in a corner. We can tweak the voice of the computer so it can be kinder, or more dogmatic. The audience feels like the computer has intelligence or agency in the score, but it is only a series of algorithms.
We will perform Zero Return in Chicago this January for a durational performance that runs an hour; for reference, the original score was just ten minutes. We are experimenting with how the score can evolve to include the audience so they understand it is not a memorized piece of choreography. We may even give the audience a chance to plug in commands throughout the script, or put their name into the cache so that they are called into the piece as well.
When did you first realize you wanted to incorporate technology into your work?
My mom is a visual artist (a photographer) and my father was an early adopter of the VHS camcorder, so I’ve been interested in visual images, film, and video technology since I was a kid. In graduate school I did a lot of video archival footage and taping for the graduate program at the University of Illinois and helped establish a program in video and video editing. After I graduated with my MFA, to make ends meet I starting taking archival videos for local dance groups and that’s when I met Sheldon. He had an interest in technology and photography, and was making electronic music. We started our video company, Superstar Productions, and did a lot of work with independent dance artists and theater artists in Chicago.
In the late 90’s, digital cameras became much more affordable. At the same time, new programs like Isadora and Final Cut Pro became affordable and available, and that’s when we started to incorporate moving images and dance together.
Earlier this year, you and Sheldon became artists-in-residence at ODC. Congratulations! What does that mean for your work?
Yes, Sheldon and I are ODC resident artists for three years and we are about six months in right now. We are currently working on ideas taken from Zero Return, and exploring body sensors, Fitbits(3) and other sensing technologies that process rhythms and habits of the body. We are thinking of data-tracking the audience to see how that intertwines with the story we are building, and creating a series of vignettes on the subject of human relationships and what is often called the augmented self.
As artists in residence, ODC gives support, helps us plan, provides administrative support, and supplies physical space. Eventually we will co-present at one or two points in the residency. Disappearing Acts has never had a problem with creative ideas. In order to expand, what we need are the underpinnings of it, the administrative aspect. Now, with ODC support, we are planning a fundraiser, we are getting an intern, and we are building up our infrastructure. It’s great to have a supportive moment to work on the company.
It’s common for theaters of ODC’s size to have a residency program but they are usually six months or a year instead of 3 years. So special thanks to Christy Brolingbroke, the Deputy Director for Advancement at ODC, for being fantastic and visionary.
Can you give us insight into what to expect from Berkeley Dance Project 2016, which you are directing in the spring?
In addition to directing the entire program, I am choreographing a piece for the concert as well. For that piece, I will be working with 5-7 dancers from TDPS and collaborating with Berkeley alumnus and sculptor Bruce Beasley, as well as Ian Heisters from Disappearing Acts. We plan to project large rings, based on Bruce Beasley’s sculptures, that the dancers will interact with. There will be sensors in the dancers’ costumes tracking their movements and those monitors will be coordinated with the rings; so these beautiful large projections will be tied to human motion. Ursula Brown, a Ph.D. candidate in New Media and Music, will perform live music and the sound will be processed and spatialized in relationship to the dancers’ movements. Essentially, everything will feel very alive in relationship to the rings and the motion in the room.
1. Kinect cameras can recognize users and track their movements in 3-D. They can also interpret specific gestures and voice commands, allowing for hands-free control of electronic devices.
2. The technological singularity is a hypothetical event where technology evolves beyond our understanding, and the capacities of the human brain are surpassed by artificial intelligence.
3. A Fitbit is a small wireless-enabled wearable device that can track one’s activity, measuring data such as the number of steps walked, quality of sleep, stairs climbed, and other personal metrics.