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Capacitor: making the scene; a modern company reaches outside the box for its audience.

CAPACITOR CHOREOGRAPHER JODI LOMASK BUILDS dance from big topics--space, technology, evolution--and unorthodox stylistic combinations, then stages her work in places where most companies rarely go. Dancers do capoeira by strobe light, ballet in leather shorts and pointe shoes, modern embellished by aerial work and fire handling. Astronomers collaborated with Lomask on Within Outer Spaces, which the Bay Area-based company performed excerpts of in November 2001 at San Francisco's Club Townsend, then as a full concert at SomArts Theater two weeks later. The piece's futuristic mood was a natural for a nightclub setting, beginning with white unitard-clad dancers spinning in harnesses suspended above the crowds. Spaces might look especially spectacular under the influence of chemical party favors (theoretically, of course), although they weren't really necessary--company co-founder Zack Bernstein's glow-in-the-dark red juggling balls and the dancers' fire-tipped claws and headdresses were illuminating enough, drawing oohs and aahs from across the darkened room. By the time the company began flinging itself around on a bouncy "bungee box" to techno-y bleeps and blips, most of the crowd was hooked. "They have to be athletic, I'll give 'em that," remarked a man in the front row.

Capacitor, like any company, is always trying to attract viewers, and it's by no means the first to challenge the concert dance status quo to do so. Ballet companies have been trying to lure first-timers to the theater with informative pre-show talks and "Casual Friday" socials and by alternating classical repertoire with contemporary programming. Modern dance companies--unconstrained by the use of pointe shoes and, in many cases, traditional notions of performance space--have taken dance outside the theater and directly to the people, from the Judson Dance Theater's 1960s-era performances at lakes, on rooftops, and in roller rinks through Shipp Dance Theatre's recent Retail Dance shopping-mall shows. Project Bandaloop, a California company mixing dance and rock climbing, has used both city buildings and the sheer face of Yosemite's El Capitan as backdrops (see "Flying Women," Dance Magazine, March, page 46). Besides reframing the theatrical experience, Bandaloop is also one of many companies rethinking movement itself, to expand their choreographic possibilities and in the process, perhaps, attract a broader range of viewers. It is increasingly common for choreographers to combine seemingly disparate techniques layered with multimedia elements--text, visual art, video, and computer software. As the Life Forms software of Merce Cunningham's 1999 work BIPED proved, the latter has great potential to reshape dance.

And that's where Capacitor, which embraces most of these ideas and then some, comes in. Lomask, an alum of the Cunningham Studio and The Royal Ballet Academy, and Bernstein, a San Francisco Make*A*Circus apprentice who honed his circus skills performing on European street corners, co-founded Capacitor in 1997, in the giddy early days of the dot-com boom. They favor video projections and electronic music; sometimes original compositions, sometimes existing pieces remixed by DJs. Capacitor's typically ten-member lineup shifts according to injuries, tours, and what it requires from performers and collaborators in any given piece. The company has catapulted outside the black box, beyond street fairs and corporate events, to the arty-freaky Burning Man festival (held Labor Day weekend in Nevada's Black Rock Desert) and the Bay Area's dot-com-driven Webby Awards.

"I've always felt like it's an artist's duty to listen to the pulse of society," Lomask said. "There needs to be some way of breaking out of dancers performing for dancers. You need to be clear about who you're performing for. Are you performing for dancers? For your generation?" Capacitor's carnival-like visuals and modern music seem to hold particular appeal for the digerati and club kids. And at this intersection, Lomask (the child of an artist and a scientist) has harnessed another kind of technology to attract new viewers: Capacitor regularly performs at dance clubs, where guests are asked to sign the company's email list. In turn, the company emails these people about its upcoming concerts in theaters. The idea is to attract people who wouldn't ordinarily attend a dance performance. Though they don't have hard numbers, Bernstein said that the company regularly receives email from people who come to the theater after seeing the performance in a club--and vice-versa.

Although performances outside the theater have increased the company's exposure to the public, they've also drawn viewers who, at best, weren't planning to see dance and, at worst, are inclined to offer the kind of noisy assessment that the decorum of the theater generally prevents. "I don't know what the hell they're doing!" bellowed a drunken reveler to his friends above the din of house music at Townsend, where Capacitor performed between DJ sets. The company posted that appearance on the Squid List, a local service that emails event news to subscribers--some, like computer programmer Geoff Pawlicki, came to see the show after receiving the Squid List announcement and then linking to the company's Web site. Though some club-goers didn't understand what was happening and others didn't notice ("You got a new haircut!" exclaimed one friend to another as Capacitor spun gamely just out of view. "Looks good!"), those who did stop dancing long enough to watch seemed favorably disposed. "This is so cool," squealed an enthusiastic watcher. "Look at it!"

Lomask doesn't necessarily mind if some folks tune out the performance. Working that way, she said, "makes us better performers. There's something exciting about the challenge of getting an audience's attention, having to compete with so many other stimulants. We have to be super-committed to what we're doing. By the time we get to the theater, we know we're not wasting anyone's time--if it wasn't communicating, it gets cut." As a street performer, Bernstein got used to the idea that people could, at any minute, walk away--and, he said, "I like the freedom of that." On the other hand, he said, the experience underscored the importance of keeping things moving. And it germinated his interest in what he calls "crossing communities--seeing things from different perspectives. I like the idea of not creating art for a particular audience."

Anandha Ray, a choreographer and member of the Isadora Duncan ("Izzie") Awards committee, first saw Capacitor in a small theater, then in a nightclub, which she felt was an effective place to draw new audiences. "You need to have a unique format like Capacitor in order to use this marketing format--[it] wouldn't work for everyone," she said. "They have a niche that really works in the nightclub environment quite spectacularly."

Martt Lawrence, a dancer/choreographer and graphic designer, agreed: "I think that only certain companies would be successful at building audiences through the club scene," she said. "I do think that Capacitor appeals to the Web-savvy, dot-com, Burning Man audience member. I was surprised to see some acquaintances that fit that category at the Capacitor show, when otherwise they would not be drawn into modern dance."

A Capacitor audience, Lomask said, is not "people who go to theater or consider themselves high-art people necessarily. That is maybe a little bit intentional. I wanted to be the kind of artist someone didn't need to study to appreciate," said Lomask. "I want someone who's never seen dance before to walk into a club and say `Wow, that's far out. I didn't know people were doing that.' If they weren't expecting it, even better--they come in more open." If audiences are drawn to spectacle and technology from this democratizing approach, maybe (or so dancemakers could hope) they would be willing to further explore the more subtle art of choreography.

"Zack is always talking about how we want to appeal to anyone on the street, regardless of background," Lomask said. "I feel like that's a tall order, but I also think it's not a bad goal."

Capacitor presents Avatars May 16-18 at San Francisco's King Street Garage. See for more information.

Heather Wisner is an associate editor for Dance Magazine.
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Author:Wisner, Heather
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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