With help of technology, Duke prof tells autobiographic story through dance

Aug. 27, 2014 @ 02:40 PM

A big move to take a job at Duke University proved more so and made such an impression on Thomas F. DeFrantz, that he named his new dance after that journey.

He and Duke University doctoral music composition student Kenneth David Stewart worked together to create the autobiographical work, “where did I think I was going? [moving into signal].”
That 50-minute work premiers Thursday and Friday at Durham Art Council’s PSI Theater.
DeFrantz had asked himself the question, “Where did I think I was going?” after Hurricane Irene had sent him back home in upstate New York that August day in 2011 after he had experienced the storm’s fury on the road. “I had driven for one-half hour and only gone five miles,” DeFrantz said in a recent phone interview.
So, he took a nap and four hours later set out again because he wanted to be in Durham on time. He still had to push through Irene’s wind and rain but eventually made it to a calm place in the storm’s wake. “There was no one on the road. People were hunkered down. It was eerie. Driving was an odd, strange experience,” he added.
The move was a big one in other ways as well – from the Northeast, where he had taught for 12 years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge to the Southeast, where he had never been and didn’t know anyone. Originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, he has no family here.
At Duke, he’s a professor of African and African American Studies and teaches courses in Performance and Technology, Contemporary Performance and African American Studies. He serves as president of the Society of Dance History Scholars and has written several award-winning books, including “Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture.”
“I made this piece because I had to. I realized I had to figure out how it felt to me to make that move,” he said.
So, his work looks at the physical and emotional cost of movement: from job changes and natural disasters as well as shifts in technology.
Technology plays a key role in this performance, presented by SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance applications. DeFrantz serves as director of this group founded in 2003 at MIT.
In his dance, DeFrantz’s movements trigger the technology, which Kenneth Stewart oversees on stage. “We bring the audience in on how it is happening so they can forget about it [the technology] and take in the performance. We want story to be first,” DeFrantz said.
Based on prompts DeFrantz gave him about the story of this work, Stewart developed interfaces. In this context, an interface is an interaction between a live performer and an electronic device. In this case, a camera is the device most used. “The interface is what transforms the gestures of a performer into data that can then be used to influence the music, the video imagery, the lighting,” DeFrantz said. “Stewart wrote the interfaces in the programming language of MAX that allows for interesting manipulation of live data.”
Stewart also performs as a musician on stage on an electric guitar with a processing unit he developed as part of his thesis project.
In the last section of the work, DeFrantz takes on the overwhelming aspect of today’s technology that brings the world into peoples’ homes – or wherever they may be -- at the click of computer keys, touch of a screen. The “signal” in his dance’s title refers to the electronic signal. “The electricity is always on. We live more and more on signal. The more devices we have, the move that’s true,” DeFrantz said. “I think technology is trying to make us do more than we can do as human beings.”
As an example, he cited the current tragedies in Missouri and around the world with armed conflicts in Iraq and Gaza as well as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. “We can’t emotionally respond to all of these. We can’t constructively think about what to do. We feel detached because we don’t really know how to respond. When we’re overloaded, we start to get immobile. As I a dancer, I have to figure out how to keep moving,” DeFrantz added.

: “where did I think I was going? [moving into signal]” a dance by Thomas F. DeFrantz with Kenneth David Stewart.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
WHERE: Durham Art Council’s PSI Theater.
TICKETS: $10 cash at the door.