Ballet Wichita looks skyward with ‘Innovations’

Staged in an airplane hangar, the company’s spring concert blends contemporary dance and digital media

Ballet Wichita looks skyward with ‘Innovations’
Ballet Wichita dancers in rehearsal for "Innovations," an original contemporary dance work. Photo by Lou Hebert for the SHOUT.

Ballet Wichita is poised to reinvent the legend of Icarus in a wildly experimental way.

The world premiere of “Innovations” will take place Friday, April 5. Using game design technology, the contemporary dance work retells the story of the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun. The concert will take place at the B-29 Doc Hangar, a 44,000-square-foot monument to flight.

Though the dance company has produced roughly one original work per year during her tenure as executive director, “We’ve never done anything this contemporary and outside of the box,” Sandy Wolter said.

Instead of the traditional curtains or a static set, dancers will perform in front of an enormous LED display with custom graphics.

“You can think of it as a backdrop that’s very active,” said John Harrison, the computer engineer and new media artist who helped conceive of and organize the production.

Seeking collaborators, Harrison reached out to the School of Digital Arts at Wichita State. That’s how Gabriel Wilson, who leads the game design program, found himself in a dance studio before the beginning of the spring semester.

“I’m not a dancer — I’m a video game designer,” Wilson said with a laugh. “They’re two very separate worlds.”

But he could envision how technology might enhance and clarify the story that guest choreographer Logan Pachciarz had in mind.

“We were off to the races,” Wilson said. “The possibilities were endless.” About nine WSU students put hundreds of hours into the project over the course of four months.

Their tasks included putting two of the dancers in motion capture suits, which animators use to make their work. Covered with sensors, the dancers performed pieces of the choreography at Shocker Studios.

Dancers from the Ballet Wichita production of "Innovations" performed parts of the choreography in the motion capture studio at Wichita State's Shocker Studios. Their avatars will be incorporated into the dance's dynamic backdrop. Photo courtesy of Ballet Wichita.

To create dynamic backdrops for “Innovations,” Wilson and his students turned to Unreal Engine, a powerful suite of tools that designers use to build 3D universes. The most popular game engine on the market, its technology has been adapted to other media. One example is the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian.”

The different collaborators had to find a “common language,” said Pachciarz, the guest choreographer. “Once you get past that, and you can communicate on the same level, this beautiful thing starts to blossom.”

He wanted to approach process in the spirit of true collaboration.

“It doesn’t cost you anything to explore new angles,” he said. “Working with people who have different ideas only sharpens my sword as an artist. Once we open that door to taking suggestions and being pliable, it creates a stronger production. Otherwise, it’s dictation, and dictation never works in a collaboration.”

Extensive conversations between Pachciarz and Wilson opened the game designer’s eyes to the way choreographers use to create meaning.

“(Pachciarz) sees dance in such a different way than I do,” Wilson said. “It’s not just movement. It’s expression. It’s life. It’s death.”

The dance’s five parts follow the movements of Ernő Dohnányi’s “Serenade in C major,” which the Fairmount String Trio will perform live. The group is composed of Catherine Consiglio (viola), Timothy Jones (violin), and Leonid Shukaev (cello).

The second-to-last movement will include live motion tracking, Harrison said. “In some way there’s going to be projection on the screen that’s directly responding to the dancers.”

At least that’s the plan. A few days before the concert, the team was still working on it.

“We’re all going to be there until weird o’ clock in the morning every day this week,” Wilson admitted.

In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of Dedalus, the inventor of the labyrinth. After King Minos imprisons them, the pair manage to escape using another novel invention: wings made from feathers, wax, and string.

According to Ovid, Dedalus commands his son to “travel between the extremes” before they take flight with their makeshift wings. But Icarus can’t help but fly higher and higher, until the sun’s heat melts the wax holding his wings together. Tragically, he falls to his death.

In a way, the legend of Icarus is a lesson about the consequences of pushing “innovations” too far. Both Harrison and Wilson emphasize that the technology should enhance the dance performance, not detract from it.

To stay “between the extremes,” a dance company can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, either. “Dance is something that keeps progressing,” Pachciarz said.

“That was part of what we wanted to get at,” added Wolter. “What is the new language of dance? Where are things going?”


Ballet Wichita presents “Innovations” + “The Promise,” a night of contemporary dance

7-8:30 p.m. Friday, April 5, at the Doc Hangar, 1788 S. Airport Road in Wichita. Doors open at 6 p.m.

“Innovations” will be preceded by “The Promise,” also choreographed by Logan Pachciarz

General admission tickets are $29-59 (plus fees) and may be purchased online.

Correction: In the original version of this story, Sandy Wolter's name was misspelled. The story has been updated, and we regret the error.

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