boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
DANCE

'String' theory

Snappy Dance Theater explores the complex connections between people

CAMBRIDGE -- On a rainy Thursday morning in Central Square's Green Street Studios, it's pretty darn dark with the lights off. "Watch out for the cables," Snappy Dance Theater artistic director Martha Mason warns when a visitor comes in to catch a sneak peek of the company's new piece, "String Beings," which will make its world premiere Wednesday through June 10 at the Boston Center for the Arts' Virginia Wimberly Theatre . There's just enough light from a computer screen to edge in and find a seat at the rehearsal.

Wait -- a computer screen? In fact, there's not only a computer setup here, but two cameras, floor-to-ceiling scrims, and two projectors that help transform Snappy's nine dancers and two live musicians into a variety of intriguing video images that intersect with the real-time action.

Snappy Dance is known for a trademark physicality that combines the daring of the circus arts with theatrical flair, edgy invention, and whimsy. "String Beings" is the company's most ambitious work to date, a 45-minute collaboration between Snappy Dance, MIT scientist/media artist Jonathan Bachrach, Berlin composer Michael Rodach , and Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Lucia Lin, who not only plays violin but interacts with the dancers to become part of the choreography.

More than a year in the making, the work is an exploration of the complex connections between people -- and between people and technology -- using string in all its contexts as a metaphor. It's about, says Mason, "the connection between two human beings, the community as a web, internally the image of our strands of DNA, which is our commonality."

Initially, "String Beings" was set to be a darker piece about social manipulation and power. "I was very influenced by [Bachrach's] studies of social systems and how they work on a microscopic level," says Mason, a slim, soft-spoken dancer with an abiding intellectual curiosity. "He works with swarms, and that got me thinking of society and how that works."

But gradually the work, presented in association with World Music/CRASHarts and the BCA, has evolved into a more playful, poignant series of observations of the ways humans influence one another, with string as the connection. In the dim light of rehearsal, Snappy dancers Jeremy Towle and Tim Gallagher wrestle with harnesses connected by an elastic cord on which Bonnie Duncan balances, flips, and hangs: It is both tightrope and tether. At another point Lin and Andrea Blesso twirl across the stage, their waists connected by a long rope.

Then there are Bachrach's vivid projections, which play off the live action. One computer program allows the dancers' movements to be looped into ghostly multiple images. Another, aptly called the Scribbler, transmutes the human form into a pulsating figure of constantly squiggling lines. Yet another follows the major point of mass on each performer, translating that into a glowing orb.

"The white dots track the largest point of the dancers' mass," Mason explains. "For [Bachrach], it brought up questions about surveillance, with cameras in random places, how much privacy we have. For me, the white orb looks like a chakra point, with the glowing soul inside, so it's like seeing their energy. When the dancers' points get close together, you see a flash of digital string, the two souls connecting. Even though we're using technology, it seems to make it even more spiritual and human, more profound."

For Mason, meeting Bachrach last year rekindled a longtime interest in technology. But Bachrach's sophisticated work has its challenges, too. "I love the technology, but it's very sensitive to light levels, what people are wearing, what the background is, distance and depth," Mason says. "It's difficult to rehearse in a dance studio and control all that. I've had to work much more theoretically."

The unifying thread in "String Beings" is Rodach's score, a colorful, rhythmically engaging combination of prerecorded pieces (mostly guitar and sampled electronics) and live music played by Lin and guitarist Michael Bierylo.

Mason first encountered Rodach's work 12 years ago, during a choreographic workshop with Pilobolus Dance Theatre founder Jonathan Wolken. She was so taken with the composer's music that she and her husband, Snappy's volunteer executive director Jurgen Weiss, visited him during a trip to Germany. "It was great," Mason recalls. "We were like artistic soulmates."

Their first collaboration was the 2004 piece "The Temperamental Wobble," for which they sent sound and movement sketches back and forth by mail, with a 10-day lag time. For "String Beings," they graduated to cyberspace, creating a more immediate exchange. "Some of his music pushes me in a direction I wouldn't have gone," Mason says. "And sometimes I propose different things. In one section, I wanted a darker, more passionate sound, and he totally understood and is redoing it."

Mason wanted the connection between music and dance to be on a visual level as well as an aural one, for the two to be equal partners. That's where Lin, Mason's former Pilates student and a member of Snappy's advisory board, comes in. Her recurring presence and the melodies emanating from her violin strings give the work a poignant throughline. Lin is hoisted on shoulders, twirled around midriffs, passed from dancer to dancer. At one point, she is lifted high atop raised arms, to lie flat as if on a ceremonial bed, playing all the while. She performs one solo standing on the thighs of Roger Fernandes , leaning forward like the figurehead of a ship.

"It's fun," Lin says with enthusiasm, "like nothing I've done before." But just in case, she's temporarily traded her fine wooden instrument for a sturdy carbon fiber number.

Pulling togeth er all the disparate elements has been a major challenge. "Every few years I like to shake things up, do a project that's really big," Mason says. "But I don't really plan things out so much. I work very much by seeing what the universe throws at me."

The company has booked an unprecedented two-week run to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Mason is hoping the added visual appeal of Bachrach's vivid technological transformations will draw in some new audiences. Even so, Mason says they'll need to sell 70 percent of the 400 seats for every show to break even.

"I feel excited about what we've been able to accomplish in such a difficult climate with almost zero foundation support except for the LEF Foundation, proud we've emerged on a national level," Mason says. "We've supported ourselves mostly through touring and school shows, and it's a bit exhausting. But I'm a fighter."

Sample video provided by Snappy Dance Theater
Related links:
SEARCH THE ARCHIVES