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Reactionary Ensemble and Nimbus Dance Open The Circle at Babeville

Image from a November 11 performance of Surround at the Burchfield Penney Art
A performance by nimbus dance this summer at Gallery 164. (Photo by Jim Bush.)


A multimedia sensory explosion is yours for the taking next Wednesday, December 8. At 8pm, Babeville’s Asbury Hall (341 Delaware Avenue) will play host to a slew of Western New York’s most creative artists, presenting their audience with an infusion of video, dance, and sound. The performance is called Surround: Visual, and it is a very fitting name.

Imagine, if you will, a 40-foot diameter screen wrapping around the audience, coming alive with eight different live mixed video projects.

Brad Wales, who teaches in the University at Buffalo’s architecture department, designed the set with help from some of his students.

“I thought that the audience should be surrounded, if possible, that it should be completely 360 degrees and around, so that’s what we’re doing,” Wales says. “I had never done a set that size, so I’m experimenting.”

The experiment provides certain members of the audience with an environment that literally puts them in the action; the individuals in the front row will have their feet on the stage.

To construct such a large set, Wales needed steel, and a lot of it. ALP Steel Corporation donated a large amount of material for the “pinwheel” set, as Wales describes it, and Jentsch & Co. did the favor of bending the steel so the “fractured circle” could be born.

But don’t expect to keep your attention on the enveloping steel screen, because dancers will ensnare the eyes of the audience and musicians delight the ears.

The goal, according to director Brian Milbrand, is to create an atmosphere that saturates the audience with a stew of media techniques, music, and dance.

“The piece is highly interactive between the dancers and the musicians and the video mixers,” Milbrand says. “I would say people should come with a blank slate and just look. It should be a visual and sonic feast.”

Surround: Visual is a cooperative effort by the musicians and artists of the Reactionary Ensemble and nimbus dance. The piece was commissioned for Beyond/In Western New York, for which it is the final performance piece. The first part was performaed at the Burchfield Panney Art Center on November 11.

“When speaking with Kyle Price and Tristan Trump [the lead musicians] about the theme, we talked about the two sides of what the Reactionary Ensemble does, the audio and the visual, and we wanted to focus on each of those elements in two shows,” Milbrand says. “We also talked about the complete media immersion we live in, that we wanted to try and accent that through audio and video.”

Beth Elkins, nimbus dance’s co-founder and artistic director, and the lead dancer in the piece, pulled together a group of eight dancers for the show, a number she says is one of the largest she has worked with.

“I haven’t had that kind of cast before,” Elkins says, adding that the number of dancers helps keep the freeing spirit of improvisational dance alive.

“Any kind of improv and bringing in different media is a real learning experience. I come from a strict ballet background so I still have ballet vocab and the memory of that, so this is very freeing,” she says. “Improv is scary because you don’t have choreography to lean on—it is just you in that moment.”

The evening comprises two 50-minute sets. One of the sets, “The Wave,” is fluid and reactionary, as the dancers control lengths of light and sound. The second of the sets features a visual remixing and interpretation of classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. It is appropriately called “Astaire/Rogers.”

Sometimes the dancers will simply exist, still, as an extension of the large, steel pinwheel screen.

“There are parts that are heavily choreographed but other times we are just bodies to be projected on,” says Elkins. “There is video that is really intense and it needs to be looked at closely. We don’t want to compete with the screen, we just want to support what’s being shown on it.”

Movie lovers can delight in identifying clips from such popular classics as Altered States, The Blob, The Last Temptation of Christ, and more as they float around the 40-foot screen, accompanied by other audio and visual stimulation.

As Wales says, nothing is preconceived about this event. Guests attending the event are best poised to enter the building with only one expectation: to experience something completely unique to and for them.

Elkins says that your seating placement and focal point will determine what you take away from the event.

“Someone sitting in the circle [at the center of the stage] is going to get a totally different experience from someone who sits in the balcony and is looking down from above,” she says. “There is going to be a lot to take in but that’s good; it’s a commentary on how life is these days.”

Milbrand says he wants the audience to come out of the show with a little confusion about what just happened.

“There is no seat in the house where you’ll be able to see all of the projections and dancers at once. No matter where you are, you’ll miss out on something,” he says.

What Milbrand hopes is that, no matter how confusing or overwhelming the experience is, the audience understands that there is a connection between the music, the dance, and the video, because the music and the movement of the dancers actually controls the visual direction. That intrigue is an added bonus.

“I really like to make shows where no one person can comprehend everything that went on,” Milbrand says. “That there’s still some mystery at the end as to how it all worked and what happened.”

December 8 is the first and final performance. The ticket price is simply a donation at the door for Hallwalls. However, a kickstarter page opened Monday to solicit support for the artists: There, interested parties can guarantee themselves good seats inside the circle for $100. Seating is first come, first served, except for seats inside the circle.

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