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July 12, 2016
Interview: Choreographer Myrna Packer on Video Partnering, Voyeurism in Art, and Her Upcoming Show at the Sheen Center


Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer of Bridgman|Packer fuse dance with video technologies in what they call "video partnering." They'll be performing two pieces using this technique July 13-16 at the Sheen Center. We spoke with Packer about Edward Hopper painting, voyeurism in art, and how they developed this exciting hybrid form.

Your work combines dance and video in what you call "video partnering", where you dance alongside video images of yourselves. What sort of technology are you using to achieve this effect, and how did you first develop it?

We have been developing this form over the past fifteen years. We started simply, recording our images, projecting and interacting with them. We then started working with live cameras on stage cabled to a projector. Our use of technology has evolved with each new work.

In this program, Voyeur has two levels of video projections surfaces. We combine pre-recorded video with imagery from two live camera feeds. All the light, camera, and projection cues are run by a show control called QLab. The recorded scenes were filmed and edited (in Final Cut) by our film collaborator Peter Bobrow.

For Remembering What Never Happened, we have introduced video processing into our work. There are four live cameras on stage that capture our images, which are transformed in time and form. This is all controlled by a program called Isadora, which was developed by Mark Coniglio. The specific technology design on Isadora for this work was created by our collaborator, Phillip Gulley. We work closely with our collaborators so that the technology and our artistic intent are in sync.

I read an interview in which you described the first time seeing Art dance with his recorded image as "stepping in and out of himself", which I thought was beautifully put. It is also how a lot of artists might talk about creating art, going and in and outside of yourself in order to create and then evaluate what you've created. How would you describe your creative process?

Through moving with our own video images, we find potent metaphors for different sides of self, levels of consciousness, and perceptions of reality. Our creative process takes lots of dips and turns. In the studio, we set up our "video and movement playground", which might consist of various projection surfaces, trial footage, and/or live cameras and projectors in different locations. We develop our dance movement through improvisation, interacting with the video imagery, with the intent that the video and the live performance have a vital integration. All rehearsals are videoed, and then we study the footage to find what works and what doesn't. Anything can change during our process. We are at all times honing what it is we want to say on stage and asking whether each of the elements is helping us to do that.

When I read that your piece Voyeur was inspired by Edward Hopper, my first thought was the set for Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free -- though from the excerpts of Voyeur that I've seen, it seems pretty clear that you are going in a different direction tonally! What was it about this artist's work that drew you in? Was there a particular painting that caught your attention?

What drew us in was the voyeurism that is so strong in Hopper's work. His characters are often seen partially through windows or doorways, or seen peering out of them. One thing that we knew we did not want to do, was re-stage Hopper's paintings. For us, Voyeur takes his paintings as a point of departure. It’s about being immersed in his world of color, light, form, perspective, and the theme of voyeurism, which implies isolation, obstruction, and an under-the-surface eroticism. At the heart of Voyeur is the seen or unseen viewer witnessing fragmented moments of private lives. We are looking at the role of both the audience and the performers (and their video images) as voyeurs.
The inspiration for our set, which is a series of panels attached at different angles with openings for windows and a doorway, probably came most directly from Hopper's painting "Night Windows". The architecture creates the barrier that the voyeur either has to see around, or that necessitates the filling in with imagination that which is missing from view. That experience is part of the essence of voyeurism. There are also influences throughout Voyeur of other Hopper paintings such as "Night Hawks", "Early Sunday Morning", "Rooms by the Sea", "Morning Sun", "Room in New York", "Cape Cod Morning", "Summer Interior", "Summer Evening", and "Excursion into Philosophy".

Besides Hopper's paintings, what works of art (visual, dance, theater, literature, etc) have made you feel most like a voyeur?

All of these art forms have the capacity to allow one to enter the mind of the artist who created them in ways that can feel quite intimate. Works that take that intimacy into voyeurism are usually ones that intentionally hide something. The audience or reader has a sense of witnessing something so personal, it feels transgressive. The opening sequence of Okwui Okpokwasili's Bronx Gothic brought me to that place, as did the novels The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, NW by Zadie Smith, and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

The other work you'll be presenting at the Sheen Center is Remembering What Never Happened, which is about the "changeable nature of time, form, perception, and identity." Dance is most often experienced only in the moment of performance; film recordings can be returned to over and over again. How did your experience working in these two mediums over the years, and their different relationships to time/memory, influence this piece?

We are very interested in the contrast and conversation between the three-dimensional, visceral, live performance and the two-dimensional video projections, which are in essence made of light. Video as a partner on stage can take an active role in the performance dynamic as a reflection, a memory, another perspective, or point in time.

With the live video processing that we use in this work, we can set up a time-delay effect, where we move with our images played back from what we did moments ago. We can create rhythmic canons with ourselves while mixing up the usual past/present/future continuum. In addition, our images begin to morph in form. This is some of what happens when we have memories. We play them over and over, but each time we remember them differently. We remember in snippets and fragments, and each person remembers the same event differently. The video in this work becomes a metaphor for that changeability. Because we are using live camera feeds on stage, some of the video imagery is as fleeting as the moment of performance. While looking at memory, the work also comments on impermanence.

Who are some other choreographers combining dance and digital technologies in ways you find exciting, inspiring, compelling?

I enjoyed seeing The Deconstructive Theatre Project's The Orpheus Variations, where they brought together cinema, theatre, and radio play, creating an art house film on stage in real time. Over the years, I have also appreciated Susan Marshall's use of video on stage with her choreography, especially her live camera work.

July 13-16 at the Sheen Center.

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