The Evolution of Dance and Technology: "Mosho", the App

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.

Picture from the February Dance: Dancing 50 Moving Forward / Looking Back performance​

Picture and Story by: Swanese Houston, Communications Intern

John Toenjes, associate professor, music director, and co director of undergraduate education at Illinois is changing the way audiences enjoy live performances by working with the understanding that audiences today are glued to their technology.

Under most circumstances, audience members at Krannert Center performances would silence and put away devices and cell phones. In several recent performances organized by John Toenjes, the audience is encouraged to keep their devices in hand and use them to interact with and even guide the action.

After watching the film Jurassic Park 2, Toenjes was perplexed. “I was surprised at how intently people were glued to their cell phones, even when something as interesting as this high action, special effects movie was on the screen,” said Toenjes. “That’s when something sparked. Something clicked!”

Toenjes wondered, if seeing famous actors, special stunts and effects, and computer-generated imagery (CGI) in films can’t keep audiences off of their phones, why fight that. Why not embrace it?  

Toenjes began working for the Illinois Department of Dance in 2001, where he developed a passion for interactive dance. He decided he wanted to literally alternate reality for audiences and connect them to the performance by integrating the technology of their personal cell phones.

As Toenjes began to develop his ideas about interactivity and dance performance, he started to use a new custom mobile application. The app served as a game where audience members had to solve puzzles that led to clues. And each clue had a connection with the live contemporary dances.

For example, some of the clues identified the performer speaking key words and then led to that person’s photo in a portrait gallery. The audience was then instructed to take a selfie with them.

Another feature allowed the audience to solve a puzzle while watching a dance. This clue would reveal a way in which the audience could choose how the dancer would communicate next and therefore change the progression of the performance.

As the app evolved, the development team added more functionality, allowing audience members to be more involved than ever before with dance performances. Without any training in choreography, the audience was able to direct the performance by selecting their preferred order of dance pieces through the app. The video below shows an example of this technology in use.

The initial invention inspired Toenjes to establish the Laboratory for Audience Interactive Technologies (LAIT) at Illinois. Toenjes received a major grant from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to create mobile apps for use in live performances. “It allows producers to show content on a live event attendees phone instantaneously, on cue, in real time,” according to the LAIT website, “Furthermore, the content of the app can be updated quite rapidly, even minutes before a show opens, in order to accommodate the last-minute changes often needed in the theatrical arts.”

“Mosho”, created with help from students in a class he teaches (DANCE 399) is the current version of the app Toenjes and his colleagues use for theater productions.

Audience members can program Mosho to do any of these actions and more:

  • extend light in the audiences

  • show graphics to create more environmental context

  • show subtitle/song lyrics

  • vibrate cell phones when something special is happening on stage.

Toenjes has noted increased audience engagement with interactive apps on mobile devices during live performances. The crowd gains a deeper understanding of the dance by following along with their device. In addition, they are able to be a part of the creation of art by influencing dancers’ motions.

“Mosho” is continuously updating with new features. Soon, users will be able to choose the song they want to hear next, the direction they want the play to go in, send messages to people within the audience, show social media feeds, and more!

What’s Next?

Recently, I attended a live performance in which Toenjes collaborated. The production, February Dance: Dancing 50 Moving Forward/ Looking Back, was a very interesting compilation. Altogether, there were four pieces that focused on the embodiment of beauty. Experiencing this performance as an audience member brought about feelings of joy, happiness and new insights. It made me happy to see because we as people sometimes get clouded in our own thoughts and forget to love ourselves.

Toenjes' role in the “Patina” piece was music. Paper, bodies, light and textured sound were used to create a visual of an object developed by Toenjes. The best part was the information generated by the dancers, as they went from formation to formation of humanness, ignoring the boundaries of race and gender. According to the program description, “The body uses itself to perform choreography, giving both the paper and the skin to be a “real -time canvas”, a patina of layered memories.”

According to the performance program, “The paper, both fragile and durable by nature, becomes a metaphor for transformation and a vehicle of expression that we use to identify ourselves. Patina touches upon empathy, impermanence, the curiosity and awareness to see beauty in transient, fleeting moments, to treat the flaws and signs of age that society is so quick to hide as the very essence of one’s history and identity. Because life is more than a perfect circle.”