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Arts How choreographer Jacob Niedzwiecki is subverting the traditional theatre experience

Choreographer Jacob Niedzwiecki left the National Ballet of Canada after three years to study more subversive forms of dance, among them acrobatics and parkour.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

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At sunset, a man and woman sit side-by-side on a strip of pavement, their backs pressed against a concrete barrier. The woman gives a jagged signal with her elbow and, in an instant, their two bodies are propped up like ancient caryatids, stiffly surveilling the surrounding area. Nearby, in an industrial stairwell, a woman lifts her face into a stream of neon light before she ballasts her weight on the banister to climb a cinderblock wall upside down.

When Jacob Niedzwiecki began to conceptualize Jacqueries, Part 1 – his dance-theatre piece that won this year's Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation at Toronto's SummerWorks Performance Festival – he was determined to subvert the traditional theatrical experience. After seeing Sleep No More in New York (a dance-theatre adaptation of Macbeth by experimental English company Punchdrunk), he became fixated on the natural overlap between promenade-style performance and dance. "Being able to move while I was watching dance, having that freedom to be on my feet and to decide if I want to pursue somebody or stay in a space – it changed the way I experienced the show."

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So he got a small group of dancers together and spent a week "underground" at the Delta Chelsea in Toronto, experimenting with guerrilla choreography in the hotel's service quarters (and ducking numerous close calls with its staff). But the site-specific squatting still felt limited to Niedzwiecki; he wanted to deepen the experiment with a secondary level of immersion. He designed an app that overlaid live choreography with synchronized music, 3-D video and animation. The result was Jacqueries, Part 1, a live, choose-your-own-adventure performance through back alleys, rooftops and fire escapes, making for an exhilarating immersion into a half-planned, half-contingent event.

Much of Niedzwiecki's work hinges on the premise that dance is in the midst of an unprecedented upheaval. It's an upheaval that bears resemblance to what the music industry went through in the latter half of the 20th century when, through the advent of synthesizers and composition programs, music became legible to technology for the first time. Suddenly, we could do more than record a particular arrangement; music could be generated and manipulated by computers and machines. "I think what we're seeing now, with the invention of programs like Microsoft Kinect [which can recognize and communicate with human motion], is the same process happening with dance."

Niedzwiecki thinks that programs such as Kinect will put the entire repertoire of human movement at any user's disposal. "Video image of dance only captures a surface impression, even with something as remarkable as the 3-D movie Pina. But this newer technology goes further because it understands and interacts with our bodies. It lets any technological system respond to movement in an intelligent way."

It all feels like a messianic moment for Niedzwiecki, who started dancing at 5 and coding at 7. His roots are in ballet, but he never felt entirely at home in the National Ballet of Canada's corps, where he danced for three years. "I was the peasant in the background of Giselle plotting the next rebellion," he says, laughing. He left the company to study more subversive forms of dance, among them acrobatics and parkour – a military-based technique of circumventing obstacles with optimal efficiency. Within a few years, his live choreography was being presented across Toronto and in South Korea; his dance films had aired at festivals in Toronto, Edinburgh and New York.

When I ask whether he's at all concerned that dance gets less attention in mainstream culture than other performing arts, he disagrees with the premise of the question. "In a world where we have Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's choreography showing up in a Beyoncé video, how do we say that dance isn't a vital part of our culture?" He's citing the renowned modern-dance choreographer's 2011 accusations that her work was plagiarized in the music video for Beyoncé's Countdown. Not only is Niedzwiecki fascinated by how copyright is becoming increasingly applicable to dance, but he also sees Beyoncé's alleged theft as evidence of a shifting paradigm. "Some people are nostalgic for a clear high-art/low-art spectrum, but I think we've successfully blown that spectrum up, and I'm very happy about that."

In 2015, Niedzwiecki and his team will take Jacqueries, Part 1 to the FilmGate Interactive Festival in Miami. From there, he'll be further developing the Jacqueries app with Canadian choreographer Peggy Baker, making it a platform that other choreographers can use in their work. But Niedzwiecki's main focus will be choreographing and producing the second part of Jacqueries. "In Part 2, the audience will work with the performers to create the environments for each scene. We're going to use the app to do very ambitious things in terms of transforming the space."

Niedzwiecki sees innovations in technology as a boon for old forms – he mentions how live-streaming from New York's Lincoln Center has brought ballet to hundreds of new audiences around the world. "So much of the bleeding edge of culture is technologically mediated," he says. And dance, which so fundamentally combines design, music, performance and space, might be the medium poised for the most groundbreaking change.

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