KT Niehoff had a vision: a giant planetarium-like space filled with floating objects surrounding visitors, who take in a performance from the 360 degree view of a spinning chair. Niehoff is not new to ambitious ideas, but this vision asked the veteran Seattle choreographer to step outside her normal territory of making abstract dances. Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds, the multi-year project is finally landing in March at the large black box space at 12th Ave Arts, but what will this crafted vessel hold? “I knew I wanted to tell a story, but I didn’t want to tell my story,” says Niehoff. Through conversation and reflection, one idea emerged. What is it like to be in a body? was a question that has always fascinated Niehoff and she decided to share the answer from a diverse set of individuals using her art as a medium.
She partnered with film director Norma Jean Ray to search for people who have unique and extreme relationships with their bodies, and not the kind usually represented in dance works. They found Shevanthi Daniels, survivor of a near death experience, Michael Grady, a paraplegic rower, Maurice Hall, a professional inline speed skater, and Soyeon Yi, the first South Korean astronaut in space, who happens to live in Puyallup.
To start building the choreography and soundscore, Niehoff conducted extensive interviews with each contributor. One section of the soundscore uses repetitive overlapping snippets of Hall describing every micro-thought that goes into turning left—a thing that happens a lot in speed skating—and the building energy of sound and thought produces a rush that makes us feel as if we are inside the race itself. The choreography Niehoff is making responds and interacts with the rhythm of the spoken words. Another choreographic technique she is using asks the guest contributors to interpret physical directions, and each individual’s body instincts form the basis for movement to be set on her three dancers: Patrick Kilbane, Liane Aung, and Alia Swersky.
While Niefhoff knew these translation processes would bring their stories and physicalities into the work in an abstracted way, but she also wanted to find a way to represent their physical image in the work, and one not divorced from the realities of their worlds. The answer came in the form of a fairly new technology: virtual reality video. Niehoff paired each contributor with a local film director: Sandy Cioffi, Gretchen Burger, Dacia Saenz, and Straw to create four films that will be shown through headsets during the performance (Jacob Fennell is the cinematographer and software creator). Stitched together from a special camera with six lenses that film in all directions simultaneously, when viewing you can literally turn your head to explore the film. It adds another layer to the personalized and individual audience experience that is already amplified by the spinning chairs and uncontrollable floating objects.
Figuring how to make that part of the vision happen has been a journey in and of itself (and a physics lesson)! Niehoff and her set architect, Cameron Irwin, tried many prototypes before finding the winning combination: large helium balloons encaged in long acrylic straws filled with sand. Because slightest change in temperature can affect the balloon’s flotation, each object needs to be calibrated before show time. And that can come down to removing individual grains of sand. Niefhoff’s team also had to engineer a special ceiling of Lycra panels that keep the objects from getting stuck on the grid, but still let light through.
“This is the first time in my career that the instillation and emersion with sound is dominant and dancing is secondary,” says Niehoff. But the container is important, especially because of the incorporation of the VR films. Because the films will be viewed individually by headset, the return to a communal experience becomes especially important to Niehoff. The instillation acts as a sort of “analogue virtual reality space” that people can be inside of together.
At a Velocity Dance Center Speakeasy event, Cioffi spoke about the experience of directing Grady’s video on his practice boat in Lake Union. Unlike normal filmmaking, there is no framing in VR. Everything is visible—even Cioffi herself, who is used to being behind the camera. Confronting the reality of her own image and body inside the art medium made her realize that, like many modern people, she’s largely ignoring the presence of her physical presence in her day-to-day. This work, in all its parts, seems to be a reminder of that singular experience that connects us all.
Don’t miss KT Niehoff’s newest work Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds, March 9-April 1 at 12th Ave Arts. Tickets available now. Check out the event on Facebook. More about KT Niehoff at ktniehoff.com.