Staging The Playground MinEvent Meant Converging Technology And Performers And Taking The Show Outdoors
When the Merce Cunningham Dance Company plans a multimedia event, it's not just a show; it's a “happening.” Dubbed the Playground MinEvent, the live outdoor production was the latest in a series of site-specific performances that the legendary Merce Cunningham choreographed in unusual locations, this one in the plaza outside the Orange County Performing Arts Center (OCPAC) in California. With 2,000 in attendance, the production inaugurated the new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at OCPAC.
To bring together the next generation of performers from local universities with seasoned show professionals, the “Playground” concept was conceived and produced by Martin Brinkerhoff of Martin Brinkerhoff Associates, Inc., in collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), with Unlimited Visibility Lighting Design (UVLD) providing lighting design.
Brinkerhoff was called in by MCDC agent/artist rep David Lieberman, who knew him from industrial work in the past. Lieberman knew they needed at least one projector to show Merce's Beach Birds for Camera film on a 100'×100' exterior wall for this first ever production at the site. The wall towers above the plaza on one side, with the lit glass concert hall on the other. “A projector — that's all they asked for in the beginning,” notes Brinkerhoff, who adds that his biggest inspiration was the opportunity to see Merce at work in his studio. “At 88, he is still actively working about six days a week,” he says. “I was deeply impressed by his artistic commitment, personal participation, and creative openness to new ideas.”
Brinkerhoff conceived the performance/staging concept as a “youthful response” to the achievements of Cunningham and composer John Cage. His challenge throughout was “creating, with confidence, something that would look cool but still be a live, spontaneous mix,” he says. This mix included a cast of 30 dance students from the University of California, Irvine, under the direction of Cunningham alumnus Michael Cole, as well as student musicians/DJs, video artists, and camera operators from Chapman University and California State University Fullerton.
Brinkerhoff's objective in designing the space included careful consideration of the audience perspective, and he spent time at the plaza in the audience's point-of-view, taking pictures, and considering what would work best for dramatic impact, audience flow, and performance visibility. He and his team then built a model of the plaza in Autodesk 3ds Max to allow quick rendering of critical angles and to be able to arrange and rearrange key show elements, re-render, review, and refine. “This process continued until everything clicked into place and felt right,” he says.
With just one early meeting, Brinkerhoff collaborated with the dance company from afar, doing everything thereafter via Internet. As Brinkerhoff noted to Josh Johnson, director of production for MCDC, early in the process, “A few 3D story-boards are worth a thousand emails,” and he now adds, “This proved to be very true, in particular, on this project.”
Brinkerhoff is no stranger to the avant-garde practices of Cunningham and Cage, who pioneered the method of using “chance operations” to compose music and dance choreography independently, only brought together to coincide at the time of the public performance. “I first encountered Cunningham and Cage at a concert at UC Berkeley in the 70s when I was a student myself. They were amazing,” Brinkerhoff says. “It drew me in, and I have followed their work ever since.” Later, as a graduate student in the 80s at UC San Diego, he participated in seminars taught by Cage and other visiting artists, including Nam June Paik.
“I remember way back as a composition student, that I resisted the use of chance techniques, but now, 25 years later, I thought I would give it a try,” Brinkerhoff notes about this project. After a bit of online searching, he consulted a website on I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text also known as the Book of Changes, and a sort of mystical analysis of how time flows through the use of 64 hexagrams. “It categorizes 64 types of moments that underpin the surface flux and chaos of daily experience — at least that's what I thought I read!” Brinkerhoff jokes. He decided to determine the visual structure of the event using this time-honored Cage technique.
To really drive home that chance element, Brinkerhoff made sure that UVLD lighting designer Gregory Cohen, the student performers, musicians, and video artists all worked completely independently of each other, not knowing what the others were preparing until the actual live performance. There were no full rehearsals, with all involved seeing the elements together for the first time just before the audience arrived.
While the dance performance unfolded in the central plaza, the wall of the concert hall displayed a timed sequence of pre-produced videos, while live picture-in-picture frames constantly moved, reconfigured, and dissolved among various live camera shots of the dancers. Simultaneously, four High End Systems (HES) DL.2s and an HES Orbital Head System mounted on a Christie 16kW projector were orchestrated by Brinkerhoff to make five additional streams of live-plus-video imagery dance across the plaza floor, playing on the dancers, and finally sweeping up and across the surrounding buildings to immerse the audience.
“There were 10 segments of video, each one minute in length, that I cast with the I Ching and gave to 10 different video artists to realize as they wished,” says Brinkerhoff. The I Ching-derived sequence of segments were: Possession/Many Individuals; The Turning Point; People Meeting; The Wanderer; Center Return; Conflict-Arguing; Keeping Still; Obstruction; Darkening of the Light; and Gathering Together.
With the general structure of Playground determined by the one-minute I Ching hexagrams, Brinkerhoff told the creative participants to interpret the hexagrams as they desired. “I'm normally a micro-manager,” he says. “I get down to story-boarding each fraction of a second. This time, with the video artists, for example, each person came in and picked which I Ching section they wanted, and then went off on their own, and in three days, we had a 10-minute piece. It was really a pleasure to see everybody come up with something unique and different.”
The video artists did have one proviso: They were to use film footage from Variations V, choreographed by Cunningham in 1965, as the foundation for their work, to be manipulated using tools such as Avid, Photoshop, 3ds Max, and After Effects. “While one person would use motion software, others put the footage on a plasma screen and reshot it,” says Brinkerhoff. Variations V features sound sources as diverse as short-wave radios and a kitchen sink drain recorded by Cage; photo-electric cells reacted to the movements of the dancers triggering switches that turned the audio on and off. Stan VanDerBeek contributed film imagery to the performance, and Nam June Paik, the televised image distortions.
To enhance all the video and dancing with lighting, Cohen's design included complementing the multi-layered video projection created by video artists, essentially designing lighting around the video. “There was no consideration of lighting at all, so in that sense it wasn't that different than any other venue,” he jokes. “Within each one-minute piece, there were six 10-second sections to light, so for the I Ching phrase, ‘fluid returns from a short distance,’ I might create a water-like look in the lighting with a little movement. All of these individual elements were planned, but the way they interacted with each other was not.”
Cohen would read the relevant passages as he was writing each moment of the show and react to each. “Sometimes it would be almost literal suggestions of hue, but in other places, I would take a sense of timing of the lighting from a frenetic passage,” the designer says.
Cohen also worked to complement the DL.2s. “Marty wanted to see what they could do, and he wanted them to punch, so when they were used, I brought the overall lighting level down a bit,” he explains. “The DL.2s became an additional layer. It was cool to light the dancers with video projection all over their bodies.” Mike Hanson programmed the DL.2s, and Cohen himself programmed the rest of the lighting on an MA Lighting grandMA.
Brinkerhoff's team, working hand-in-hand with technicians from Video Applications, handled video programming, creation, and management. On site, students handled the camera work and direction, using I Ching-generated cues. Brinkerhoff also helped direct some of the live cues with regard to a randomization reel of visuals that were mixed with the I Ching triggered cues.
Even the music accompaniment followed the Cage aesthetic. Brinkerhoff asked the music students, led by his son Robert Brinkerhoff, to craft a score keeping with this tradition. A roof camera on the dancers that fed a plasma monitor helped the musicians determine what to play. Even the camera directions for the video director to give his operator were determined by the I Ching.
All seems rather random, right? But in its randomness, the performance was not at all disjointed. “It felt natural, like a progression,” says Brinkerhoff. “It all flowed together.” And in the end, the production was a chance for all to learn, through similar practices, from some masters. “The closest most students get to studying influential artists is learning about their work in a classroom or watching them in a documentary,” Brinkerhoff adds. “MinEvent gave the student dancers, musicians, and camera operators the chance to learn from Cunningham and Cage by creatively adapting their methods and integrating cutting-edge technology into a major multimedia ‘happening’ for a live audience.”
“It's a great thing about dance — you can permit almost anything,” adds Cohen. “We weren't making great camera shots, but we were making — I hope — pretty pictures.”
PLAYGROUND MINEVENT EQUIPMENT LIST
8 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Profile
4 Vari-Lite VL 2500 Spot
8 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal 575W
36 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 575W
24 ETC Source Four PAR WFL 575W
12 Color Kinetics ColorBlast12
4 High End Systems DL.2
1 High End Systems Orbital Head System
Video Projection And Display
3 Christie S+16 Projector w/DVI Input - 16,000 Lumen @ 1400×1050
3 100 meter DVI Fiber Optic Cable
1 DVI Splitter
Projector For Orbital Head
1 Christie S+16 Projector w/DVI Input - 16,000 Lumen @ 1400×1050
1 100 meter DVI Fiber Optic Cable
2 Folsom Image Pro (UHF Camera Input)
1 Folsom Image Pro (DL.2)
1 RGBHV DA (DL.2)
1 Sony DFS 500 Switcher
4 Sony PVM 8221 8" Color Monitor (Program Feed to Musicians)
2 Sony PVM 8221 8" Color Monitor (UHF Cameras)
Screen Switching And Upconversion
Vista Spyder Two-Output Switching System
2 Hitachi Z-4000 Digital Camera w/Triax & Studio Kit
2 Canon 20:1 Lens Zoom Lens w/Servo Control
2 Sachtler 18 Tripod
1 Sony PVM 8221 8" Fine Pitch Color Monitor
1 Folsom Image Pro (Watchout)
3 Universal Computer Interface/DVI Interface
3 30 Meter DVI Fiber Optic Cable (DVI source)
1 Telex RTS 803 12-Channel Programmable Master Station
2 Telex RTS 803 Director's Station
20 Telex RTS BP-325 Dual-Channel Stereo
Programmable Beltpack w/Headset
High End Systems (digital lighting)
Video Applications, Inc. (video and projection)
Gear Monkey (camera support)