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Pittsburgh Troupe Puts Virtual Dance In A Virtual Kennedy Center

Like most performing-arts groups, slowdanger has had shows canceled or postponed because of the pandemic. But in the case of this Pittsburgh-based interdisciplinary troupe known for blending movement with new technology, a postponement sent it even further down a high-tech path it was already traveling.

On Mon., Feb. 15, slowdanger and collaborator Anna Henson will debut “far field,” an immersive work that gives a new look to online dance. The show, originally conceived as a mix of live dance and virtual reality, had been set to debut in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Studio K this past July. But after it was postponed, slowdanger went all-in on VR.

The troupe’s five dancers -- Maxi Canion, Symara Johnson, and Anna Wotring, and co-artistic directors anna thompson, and taylor knight – each contributed short solo videos of themselves at home or outdoors, incorporating both dance moves and everyday activities (think tooth-brushing). They passed the videos to Anna Henson, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and longtime slowdanger collaborator who specializes in creative uses of technology.

Henson ran the videos through an algorithm that basically applies a filter to the moving images, stripping out the color and giving them the look of a sonogram. The filter also exaggerates movement, so that performers in motion emanate a ghostly trailing light. (In fact, the algorithm, Eulerian Video Magnification, is used in medicine as well.) Then Henson inserted the videos into a virtual gallery space: a 3D model of Studio K.

“We are making what I consider to be an immersive video installation or an immersive projection space, inside of a 3-D model of where it was supposed to happen in person,” said Henson, currently based in California.

Visitors won’t need any special technology to experience the exhibit. It can be accessed round-the-clock through slowdanger’s website on a laptop or smartphone of reasonably recent vintage (though anyone with a VR headset is welcome to use it instead). Visitors can pick an avatar (the default is a “cute robot,” said Henson) and use it to wander through the space, watch the videos and take in the ambient soundtrack.

“It’s almost like a gallery space, so you can enter and stay for as long as you want, or as short as you want,” said thompson.

Visitors who allow access to their microphones can also communicate by voice with any other visitors. Up to 24 people can visit the show at a time.

“We’re hoping this will kind of open up performance opportunities for people, and for us to be able to share our work, and share kind of intimate performance experiences that live in this new world online,” said Henson. “This is as much an experiment in new forms as it is an aesthetic or artistic journey for us.”

The show is free, and runs through March 1.

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