Everyone knows: good ideas can make great things happen. In 2013, UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute initiated the IDEAS program to encourage faculty and students in visual arts, music, theater and dance to take advantage of the Institute’s advanced audio-visual capabilities in staging their works.
IDEAS stands for Initiative for Digital Exploration of Arts and Sciences; after a rigorous selection process, most performances take place in Atkinson Hall, home of Calit2, California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.
The 2016-17 season began Oct. 20 with a multimedia dance collaboration helmed by Yolande Snaith, head of UCSD’s Undergraduate Dance Program. “Measuring the Dream” is based on the poetry and life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun in colonial Mexico who was a self-taught scholar and poet, known in her lifetime as “The Tenth Muse.”
Her epic poem “The Dream,” full of mythical symbolism, was Snaith’s inspiration for the piece she first started in 2009, when a grant took her to Mexico City, and she got to visit the convent where Sor Juana was born and buried.
The performance, which included live piano and pre-recorded electronic music, 3-D fiber optics and a “video wall,” was indeed a great thing — elegant, theatrical and visually compelling, not least because of the elaborate headgear, which Snaith herself created for her trinity of dancers (Erin Tracy, Heather Glabe and Aurora LaGattuta) and The Dreamer, Veronica Santiego Moniello.
It was hard to believe that much of the piece — which Snaith called “a living, breathing organism, bringing together past, present and future” — was improvised, after many hours of rehearsal, with everyone involved contributing their own responses to The Dream. “It’s choreographed, but here’s no absolute, fixed sequence of movements,” Snaith said. “In the dance world, we call it ‘composing in the moment.’ It’s happening live, every time.”
“We used the text as a kind of jumping-off point, to express the yearning, the longing, the journey,” said Ryan Welsh, the doctoral candidate who composed and performed the haunting music, using sound to create an emotional experience.
“In four days, we created the piece for this space,” added production designer Victoria Petrovich. “We only got halfway through the images we wanted; we never had time for the rest. But this is a unique space to explore the meeting of science and art.”
The British-born Snaith, a passionate collaborator, had her own theater/dance company in England and did the choreography for Stanley Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut.” After joining the Theatre and Dance faculty in 2002, she formed IMAGOmoves to present collaborative pieces here and abroad. One of her notable solo pieces was “100 Feet,” which involved a supporting cast of 50 pairs of shoes. Part of UCSD’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2011, it was a homage to 50 women who have influenced her thinking, including Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday, and Princess Diana.
Sor Juana is No. 51. The one-night-only performance of “Measuring the Dream,” staged in Calit2’s technologically sophisticated but not over-large theater, was a huge success. “It’s the first time we had to turn people away,” said Snaith, who is now looking for another space to show the work again.
IF YOU GO: Next in the IDEAS series is “The Pawel Norway Dream Machine,” 5-7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Atkinson Hall on UCSD campus. It’s a performance/exhibit that recreates 19th century experiments with dream memory. Come early for assured seating. All performances are free, and will continue January-May 2017. For a full schedule, visit qi.ucsd.edu/events