Last year we wrote about the brilliant multimedia dance performance PIÈCE À VIVRE (Living Room), a collaborative work between Moscow-based artists and new media producers Evgeniy Afonin and Yan Kalnberzin, who also co-founded the creative company Russian Visual Artists. We were understandably excited when Evgeniy contacted us to share his most recent project EXHIBIT ITEM/AWAKENING.
The contemporary dance performance strikes out in bold and innovative directions. Most notably, the entire production takes place on a semitransparent glass stage platform comprised of a complex lighting and video setup. LED strips and other lighting devices are embedded inside the stage under the glass which is projection-mapped from above. Finally "hydrogel", a substance resembling shaved ice or slushy snow covers the stage forming a medium upon which the performer - well... slides.
Almost all control, video, and LED content production and synchronization was achieved with TouchDesigner.
EXHIBIT ITEM/AWAKENING was recently awarded two prizes from the prestigious "Golden Mask Award", the National Theatre Award established in 1993 by the Theatre Union of the Russian Federation. The Golden Mask Award is the most prestigious award presented to productions in all genres of theatre art: drama, opera, ballet, modern dance, operetta, musical, and puppet theatre."
Receiving their awards: Evgeniy Afonin, Anna Abalikhina, Galina Solodovnikova, Yuriy Chulkov, Sergey Vasilyev
The first prize was awarded to the entire team for "Contemporary Dance/Best Production", and a remarkable achievement (in the traditional theatrical world where LED and projection mapping rarely make an appearance), Evgeniy and his partner Sergey Vasilyev received a second award for "Best Light Designer in Musical Theatre".
The play is now in the repertory of stately Alexandrinskiy Theatre in Saint Petersburg where the theatre staff handles the TouchDesigner-based lighting system via an interface Evgeniy designed specifically for this purpose.
It's a stunning work and a spectacular achievement! Evgeniy tells us about the making of the production below, thank-you Evgeniy!
Evgeniy Afonin: EXHIBIT ITEM/AWAKENING is something between an installation and performance itself. The director and choreographer Anna Abalikhina titles it as a "body installation". Many critics found there to be some story about an embryo turning into a human, "the parable of progress", although this was not our original goal. Initially, there is no narrative of history, it is a kind of research, built on a structured improvisation. We can say that the performer goes through several stages of evolution, each time learning new relationships with the environment.
The main factor determining this environment was a so-called hydrogel. This is a substance that looks like ice, then like water and eventually like glass. In fact it is very wet, cold and slippery. So the fact that the performer stands up only once in the end, is not a director's whim but a practical consideration that is a result of a really slippery surface!
The stage is sort of a "sandwich". The upper layer is an acrylic glass covered with a special film to prevent the performer from hitting the joints and to isolate inner layers from hydrogel. From the inside there is another film that reflects light from the outside and that is translucent from the LED side. The second layer is a polygon-shaped stage frame with a total of 60 meters of WS2811-based addressable LED. The third layer is a reflector for the LEDs since they are directed inwards. Finally, the fourth layer is a lower technical zone with LED controllers and an additional light unit that is used in the very beginning when the performer gets out of the "coccoon". The entire surface is covered from above with a 10K Christie projector.
Yuriy Chulkov & Evgeniy Afonin turning on ceiling camera
Schematic of stage sections and LED strips
Stage design and production supervision was the brilliant work of Galina Solodovnikova, the play's artistic director. All the controls were set up on a single server outputting two images - one DVI to the LED server, and another to the projector. LED mapping was set on a separate server so that the theatre crew could manage it.
It was not a difficult thing to produce by way of graphics. The majority of time and effort went to coordinating projection with LEDs and setting different combinations of brightness, color and saturation to get a balanced and organic look. Outside of on-stage testing we were never able to predict the final look of any picture as the hydrogel blurs the projected image a lot and LEDs' color reproduction and brightness graduation are far from perfect.
TouchDesigner was the ideal tool for the reason of having no other option than to work live. Here is the process: I made some pre-setup, then during the rehearsals we were looking for nice combinations and transitions, after which all possible animation channels were recorded live with Record CHOP, usually with several passes. I then composed everything together and made a user interface for the show operator.
Root of the patch, scenes are grouped in red containers
"Fish" scene and Record CHOPs with data for the particle system
"Frame" scene and an interface for particles manual control
The only thing that remained interactive in the final version was the "cloud" that had to precisely cover the performer in order to have sufficient light on him. The cloud was a very important aspect that had specific size and brightness settings in each scene. As we completely declined to use common stage lighting (except for the first five minutes of the play), the projection also served to highlight the artist.
In a particles scene the cloud's center is also a particle emitter. All the effects - contraction, repulsion, twisting, particle amount and their lifetime are recorded as CHOP-channels. But we also had an option of switching to manual in case of the performer being out of choreographic timing occasionally.
Performer being wrapped in the coccoon and below on stage
The operator's controls were assigned to a midi-controller which allowed scene switching, changing modes inside scenes, and tuning some of the basic parameters. Performer tracking was done in realtime using an iPad - or a mouse as a backup option. We didn't use the IR tracking because the LEDs inside the stage had some IR d, and also we had to warm the hydrogel with powerful PARs, so that the dancer didn't freeze!
For the "Dream" scene I wrote a small C++ plugin to simulate neural network impulse transfer (image below), so that it could spread out of a specific place in given directions.
Evgeniy Afonin with Golden Mask Award
All in all I feel quite satisfied using different media in this project in such a way that they look like a single entity, and become one of the play's character - not just a simple decoration. Thanks to the production group, and especially the performers, who suffered lots of inhuman experiments during the rehearsals :-)
Born in 1983 in Moscow, Evgeniy studied at the Moscow Institute of Radio Engineering and Automation. He has worked with video art since 2003, performing as a VJ at clubs and festival venues.
Since 2008 Evgeniy has worked in the field of digital arts and new multimedia technologies, interactive design, generative systems, and natural human-computer interaction. His work focuses on designing and constructing immersive interactive environments, as well as kinematic models and specialized object-control software.
Evgeniy is a co-founder of Moscow-based creative company Russian Visual Artists. He has worked in more than a dozen theatrical productions as video/media artist, in gallery exhibitions, and on commercial projects.
Since departing from RVA in 2012 Evgeniy and Yan Kalnberzin have continued to work together "mostly by our names" Evgeniy tells us, but also as Foregniers Art-Group and more recently as Curiosity Media Laboratory based out of Mars Art Center".
It should also be mentioned that outside of producing a constant body of exceptional work that Evgeniy and Yan are very active in teaching TouchDesigner. They conducted a 6 month course last year (with another scheduled for October 2015) and have taught multiple 2-5 day masterclasses. Keep in touch here!
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