Over the past year, Cornish College of the Arts featured a course about “9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering.” The course, team-taught by Brendan Hogan, Robin Oppenheimer, and Robert Campbell, explored the 1966 events, and then challenged students to employ 21st century technologies to recreate five of the original 10 performances by the end of the course.
The students chose to explore and build on the 1966 performances by Robert Whitman, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, Lucinda Childs, and John Cage. Crammed into a basement space at Cornish, the 2016 end-of-year performances had none of the physical expansiveness of 1966. But they did strongly convey that sense of being “happenings” that the 1966 performances had. As coursework, they tended to burst with the notion that the students were learning a lot, about art, about history, about how to work with technology, and about how to integrate technology into their art.
Each of the performances had a complex web of computers, projectors, sensors, with a fair amount of the last-minute fiddling and fixing that marked the 1966 performances. In some cases, the students took off from 1966; in others, there were direct quotes. John Cage’s remote microphones around Manhattan, connected through phone lines, were replaced with live smart phone feeds from around Seattle. His mic’ed appliances were replaced by a beautifully mic’ed manual typewriter.
One of my favorites of the five saw an equipment failure, as will happen in such performances, which completely changed the project and arguably made it stronger. The piece was a 21st century take-off from Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 piece, “Carriage Discreetness.” The project saw five dancers, all students, each under a cone of colored light, with sensor on the floor in front of each. The dancers would be doing improvisations to music chosen at random from a huge digital music library, which was divided into tracks: hip hop, soul, swing, classical, and so on.
Someone chosen from the audience would hit a colored switch on a small wireless switch box. Doing so would choose the track and the color of the light for the five dancers. Each dancer would then improvise a bit from the random selection they got, and would dance until they happened to block the sensor, which would shut off their music, and the next dancer’s piece of music would start. After all five dancers did their improvisations, the process would repeat.
But something went wrong, and the sensors malfunctioned. The dancers, who expected to be improvising for maybe 15 to 20 seconds at a stretch, found themselves going for a minute or longer with each performance. And what was supposed to be fast and short, maybe 20 minutes or so, went on for nearly an hour and a half.
The dancers were obviously getting exhausted, and the whole thing could have turned into something like a dance marathon, “They Shoot Cornish Dancers, Don’t They?” But the dancers more than rose the occasion, and what were intended to be brief snippets became whole, random, improvised performances within the confines of the cones of light, similar to what happens with Tiny Dances. The effect was stunning.
9e2 and Cornish are talking about staging some of the performances, possibly in new versions, at 9e2 in October. Stay tuned.
Photo credit: Marty Oppenheimer