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Digital Dance Maker

VCU dance graduate Katie Contessa takes dance into the digital age.

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“I was never a computer geek,” Contessa says. “It was intriguing to me because of my ballet training. I like clean, sleek lines, and the computer program was a great way to find my aesthetic.”

Contessa began dancing at 5. She has since appeared with the Cincinnati Ballet, the Richmond Ballet and Charleston Ballet Theatre. Yet she found that life in front of the footlights isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — work as a professional dancer can become an uninspiring grind.

“I just found something missing, and I wanted to finish my studies. And at the age I was I learned that this employment wasn’t exactly stable, I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing with my life?’”

It’s a question every professional dancer asks sometime. Contessa’s answer was to move back to Richmond in 2001 and pursue a dance degree at VCU. She wasn’t sure what she had gotten herself into. At 25, she was a few years older than her fellow students, but Contessa recaptured her interest in dance, only this time she was creating work in addition to performing it.

Contessa began with classes in improvisation and composition, learning how to string different steps together into a full work, learning how to sustain visual interest through structure and musicality. These and a healthy imagination are the basics for any choreographer, but Contessa wanted to take it one step further. She wanted to introduce other media.

Her inspiration came while attending a workshop given by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in early 2003. Cunning-ham, a leader in avant-garde modern dance, is now an octogenarian who remains artistically active by creating new work through the Life Forms program. It provides an outline of the human body that can be manipulated into various shapes and poses. Contessa started to work with this program to create her senior thesis, a graduation requirement in which students create their own work for public showing.

In a computer lab, Contessa hashed out ideas. She says, “It was extremely tedious. With the mouse, you must move each body part separately — like first the elbow, then the wrist, and then the fingers for one arm movement.” When finished, she took her digital ideas to her dancers. “It was like the computer screen came to life in front of me,” she says about her first rehearsals. “The dancers brought so much more to the movement and emotion that I didn’t see with the program alone.”

The final project, which she called “Da Capo,” is an onstage fusion of technology and humanity like those old “Is it live or is it Memorex?” commercials. At the students’ fall senior project concert in late November, two large screens allowed computer animation to perform alongside living dancers. Was it thrilling? No. But it was interesting and may portend things to come in dance when the stage becomes a digital playground pushing virtual reality to a new level.

Whether she will become a pioneer in high-tech dance remains to be seen. Contessa’s immediate plans are to stay in Richmond. Her husband, Joe, is a medical student and applying for residency programs. But wherever they land, she’ll continue to create and perform, using technology to keep dance a vital art form “We have to keep up,” she says. “So much of society now is technologically based, and by making it more up-to-date, hopefully more people will come to see dance.” S

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