By Steve Fyffe
Associate professor of dance Brad Garner and his collaborators in Harmonic Laboratory have already established a reputation for staging spectacular shows that combine dance, music, digital media and science in creative and unexpected ways.
The collective of University of Oregon faculty and alumni incorporated seismic recordings from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano into the soundtrack for a performance called “Tremor.”
They turned an Xbox Kinect gaming sensor and a heart rate monitor into musical instruments for another entitled “Four Corners.”
And for the past six years, they’ve transformed the lobby of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, and more recently the Erb Memorial Union, into unique venues for an annual digital arts festival featuring the work of as many as 70 artists, musicians and dancers.
But even by their standards, their pitch for an Oregon Community Foundation “Creative Heights Award,” to fund a show based on the life and work of enigmatic inventor Nikola Tesla, was a bold undertaking.
“It’s ambitious,” said Garner. “That’s why it’s called ‘Creative Heights,’ because we’re supposed to take risks.”
The philanthropic organization must have liked their application, because last October it awarded Garner’s group $75,000, through Harmonic Laboratory’s affiliated non-profit Integrated Arts, to create and tour a stage show called “Tesla: Light, Sound, Color.”
“I’ve always been interested in this strange, sort of tantalizing historical character of Nikola Tesla,” said John Park, a senior career instructor in the University of Oregon Department of Art, who designs animations and multimedia projections for the group.
“It’s just a fascinating science story that we’d love to illuminate through the arts.”
It’s a story that has special personal significance for Park. His father Kwangjai Park was a physics professor at the University of Oregon for more than 35 years.
Park got to take one of his father’s physics classes as an undergraduate, before his retirement in 2002, and said that his father was a charismatic teacher and a true believer in the power of physics.
“Having grown up around a lot of physics experiments, with my father as a physicist, I very quickly learned from a young age, how surprising science can be if you see it up close,” said Park.
While the production is still under development, the group is planning on incorporating a live, on-stage physics demonstration that showcases one of the investor’s most astounding creations; the Tesla coil.
Tesla coils are high-voltage transformers that send electricity flying into the air around them, like slow motion bolts of lightning.
It was a revolutionary invention that was the first system capable of wirelessly transmitting electricity.
“We’re trying to create a spectacle and something magical for people that they wouldn’t normally experience,” said Harmonic Laboratory member Jeremy Schropp.
Schropp earned both a master’s degree in intermedia music technology, and a doctorate in music composition and theory at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.
He is responsible for composing and performing the music for the show, along with SOMD alum Jon Bellona, who also graduated with a master’s in intermedia music technology. Bellona will be joining the SOMD faculty in September as our new instructor of audio production.
“For our group especially, it’s all about collaboration,” said Schropp.
“In the past, dance has relied heavily on music, but I really like reversing the roles so that the music relies on the choreography.
“By using all these different disciplines, it provides me a different way of thinking about my craft.”
Garner previewed the choreography for a piece titled “Broadcasting,” based on Tesla’s pioneering research into radio transmission, at the American College Dance Association conference held at the University of Oregon’s Dance Department during spring term.
The dancers used their bodies to shape radio waves being sent out from transmitter to eight radio receivers placed around the stage.
“The dancers had to tune into it, find it and use it as sort of a spatialization of the sound,” said Garner.
He workshopped another piece at the last Faculty Dance Concert called “Admitting Light” that was inspired by Tesla’s invention of the AC generator, where a figure representing Tesla symbolically circled the stage three times – a reference to Tesla’s obsessive-compulsive habits.
“For example, he’d circle the block three times before entering the building,” said Garner.
Despite his quirks, Tesla’s creative genius was an inspiration to the group as they conceptualized the show, Garner said.
“Nikola Tesla would create in his mind,” said Garner. “He didn’t draw his ideas. He just sort of imagined them and then just went to building.”
Park said he hoped that their interdisciplinary effort would inspire other University of Oregon faculty members and help break down barriers throughout the university.
“Down the line, I’m hoping we can co-teach classes and think, ‘How do we get animators to take dance classes?’,” said Park.
“I’m starting to get, in fact, dancers and choreographers to take my video art classes as a way to think about visual components in their dance productions.
“So I see an interesting kind of bleeding out of interests, and it’s happening with the students and faculty, where there’s more of a willingness to follow down this trail that I think some of us have started to carve out.”
The show “Tesla: Light, Sound, Color” is scheduled to premiere at The Hult Center for Performing Arts in Eugene on January 10-11, 2018, before touring to Portland's Newmark Theatre on January 13, and Bend's Tower Theatre on January 15.