Tracking the Dance

This article was created by a Technology Services student employee. Our student employees attend, engage, and report on campus events that feature technology. Students provide a unique perspective on how innovations in technology affect campus life.

By Meghan McCoy, English, '18

Take a moment and think about what you use technology for. What are some of the first things that come to mind?

If I had to guess, I would say that most people would probably think about their email, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. And that’s just to name a few.

But how many people would think about dance and technology? And not just the normal use of lights and music during a performance or class, but actually incorporating different types of technology into a dance and even at times getting the audience involved through apps on their phones.

That one, maybe not so much.

That’s where Professor John Toenjes comes in. Professor Toenjes, who has been an associate professor and music director of Dance at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign since 2001, has spent his career finding and exploring the intersection of the arts and technology. He explained how he started by “playing and composing music for modern dancers since the late 1970’s. When I came to the University of Illinois in 2001, I discovered that through tracking technology and interactive softwares these two disciplines could be merged.”

The University of Illinois is well known for its STEM programs and research opportunities on campus, which is one of the things Professor Toenjes said has been really helpful throughout his research.

The University of Illinois is extremely supportive in allowing faculty the time to pursue their research,” he explained. “Whatever I’ve been able to dream up in terms of performances, or research threads, I have been able to explore and pursue. Plus, the University of Illinois faculty and staff is composed of so many experts in so many areas that I can reach out to colleagues for advice and guidance.”

Curious as to what exactly Professor Toenjes is researching, I was impressed to discover the different programs and technological systems he’s built during his time at the University. After a 2014 dance performance called Kama Begata Nihilum, which featured dancers carrying networked iPads and an app that allowed the audience to elevate the stage action, Professor Toenjes was inspired to create LAIT.

LAIT, which stands for the Laboratory for Audience Interactive Technologies, is a designing platform created to encourage audience interaction through the use of apps designed in the program. Because Professor Toenjes sees our day to day devices as a way that we connect to our community, and dancers in a performance as trying to connect to the audience, it was a natural leap for him to try and bring those two interests together. LAIT is designed with hopes for the future of theater, where audience members, through whatever device they bring with them to a performance, can interact with what’s happening on stage and truly connect to the people around them.

Recently, Professor Toenjes used LAIT in his 2015 dance performances Public Figure and Critical Mass at the University of California-Irvine with professor and choreographer Chad Hall. 

"Here we used the LAIT app to play the music score, show graphics, and enhance lighting effects,” Professor Toenjes said. “We also used it to play videos about what the dancers were dancing about and to direct the audience to pay attention to certain things and not to others.”

For most theater performances, while as amazing as they can be, few look to make the audience an interactive part of the performance, and this is the aspect of LAIT that makes it so special. Most of us spend a large part of our time looking for ways to connect with the people around us, which is definitely one of the great things that technology allows us to do. But in the pursuit of connection through technology it can also be easy to lose sight of how we can be connected through art. LAIT, then, is able to bring both of those fields together, and show that the space between technology and art is a lot smaller than we might think.

For those of you out there who think this is something you would like to try exploring within the University, Professor Toenjes also offers a special topics course in dance and technology held every other year. Because of the fluid and ever-changing nature of technology, Professor Toenjes says the every other year structure is designed to make sure he can investigate technologies as they become “hot” topics, and then explore them in the classroom, or better yet dance studio. Some of the topics he’s focused on in his past classes is interactive dance with motion capture, Telematic dance, and incorporating iPads and dance, which, if anything, just sounds really cool.

And for all of you music junkies, as someone who has been a musician all his life, Professor Toenjes says he makes sure to “devote a unit to making electronic music, which uses phones for recording and GarageBand for remixing. Students are always open to trying new technologies, even though sometimes it can be difficult to see all the possibilities that these technologies can bring.”

As technology increasingly becomes a part of our everyday world, I find that it also becomes more important to not feel that, in our pursuit for better apps, iPhones, or online programs, we’re giving up or putting aside our pursuit and love of art, no matter its form.

On their own, technology and art both have the incredible ability to connect, explore, and explain things we may never have experienced otherwise. But, as we see through Professor Toenjes and his search for how we can bring art and technology together, even more incredible things can be discovered and created when we recognize the mutuality of art and technology, and commit to letting neither one be left behind.