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Dancing long-distance

A high-speed fiber-optic network, now serving college campuses, holds great promise for collaboration in the arts.

November 10, 2002|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

'We want to make sure geography is not a barrier to collaboration.' -- Ann Doyle, director of Arts and Humanities

Initiative for Internet2


Backstage at USC's Bing Theater a couple of weeks ago, show time fast approached for Benjamin Schaeffer, a lanky University of Illinois computer programmer with a doctorate in mathematics. Cradling a cell phone, Schaeffer eyed the numbers scrolling across his laptop screen and checked in with dancer Cho-Ying Tsai as she warmed up -- 1,800 miles away -- for a piece she'd soon be performing with Chih-Chun Huang on the stage of the theater on the USC campus.

Schaeffer, 32, explained that for the "Hummingbird" piece, directed by Yu Hasegawa-Johnson, he constructed a virtual dancer in the shape of a giant Peter Pan-like figure with wings, animated by a flesh-and-blood human. Now, he was busy preparing his avatar for her close-up on a mesh screen positioned on the Bing stage.

"There's a dancer in Urbana [Ill.] right now who is in a motion-capture stage, much like they use for video games or movies," Schaeffer explained. "During the performance, you'll see an image of her clothed in various forms, and this avatar will be driven by what the dancer is doing. One of these computers is shipping video back to Urbana so the dancer there can see what the dancer here is doing and they can interact. I set up the gear, and now I'm the machine minder."

In an experiment that gave new meaning to the term "tech rehearsal," Schaeffer and nearly a dozen other engineers and software programmers from around the country hovered over scads of laptop computers, gleaming black boxes, mixing consoles and video monitors. For this virtual variety show, sounds and images would be streaming in during the next couple of hours from Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, Illinois and three California sites. The data would be routed through digital projectors positioned at the back of the house and transmitted to screens on stage.

The only one who really seemed out of place was a toga-clad actor, Isaac Taiber, who would perform later in the evening and looked as though he'd wandered into the control booth for a downsized Apollo space launch.

The techies were riding herd on their data streams as part of an event titled "Cultivating Communities: Dance in the Digital Age," which took place last month at USC in conjunction with the fall Internet2 Member Meeting.

Isn't one Internet enough?

Not for technologists interested in the next wave of high-speed network innovations. Created in 1996, Internet2 is a consortium of 200 American universities partnered with private industry and government agencies, which are connected by a high-speed fiber-optic backbone known as the Abilene Network. Completely separate from the World Wide Web, Internet2's mission is to develop and deploy "advanced network applications and technologies, accelerating the creation of tomorrow's Internet."

Today's regular "commodity" Internet, as it is known among the Internet2 crowd, also evolved from a government academic partnership. It sprang from a network devised in 1969 by the federal Defense Department as a way for university researchers to communicate with one another in the event of a nuclear catastrophe.

Just as that alliance gave rise to all manner of unanticipated commercial and creative uses, so will Internet2 one day spawn new media forms that can be enjoyed by the public at large. At least, that's what "Cultivating Communities" producers Ella Belzberg and her husband, Benjamin Thompson, are banking on.

"Within a few years, many principal theaters will have rooms for all this equipment as part of the infrastructure of what is needed in a theater," Belzberg says. "This research is going to be taken up by professional venues, and the best models are going to be snapped up. I think within a short period of time, you're going to have dance shows across the country reflecting what took place at this event."

The couple was among the renegade artists who founded the Actors' Gang theater at UCLA in 1981. They hope Internet2 will shake up the status quo in much the same way that the Actors' Gang's high-energy aesthetic caused a stir in the early '80s.

"The Gang was all about doing aggressive, crazy, fun-loving street theater -- that was the edge then," Thompson says. "Now it's multi-co-location, high-bandwidth, university-based performance events."

Belzberg and Thompson became interested in Internet2's potential for hooking together geographically disparate performances about three years ago, when Belzberg helped produce a conference for Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

"That's where we met most of the players," Thompson says. "We immediately began looking at how this wideband network could be used to engage an audience, engage students and make the arts more accessible. If the Actors' Gang was all about introducing this very physical theater into the world, now we were going over to digital theater and distributed rehearsal."

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