Virtual reality meets the moon in choreographer Ivan Pulinkala’s new work, Moon Dust, a first-time collaboration between Kennesaw State University’s Department of Dance and the College of Computing and Software Engineering. Choreographer Lisa K. Lock’s Bones, also a premiere, shares the bill January 30-31 and February 1 at the KSU Dance Theater on the Marietta campus.
Moon Dust explores the mystery of life after death and is based on accounts of near-death experiences. Pulinkala, dean of the College of the Arts, was inspired by a deeply personal loss that made him wonder what happens after we die. Where do we go? He started researching phenomena, and read and reread the bestselling book Proof of Heaven, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s first-person account of his life-changing journey into nonphysical realms while in a coma.
Pulinkala sees this research as a positive way to make sense of life and death. Because of developments in medical science, there’s now a cohort of individuals who have been declared dead and, when revived, can narrate their out-of-body experiences. The work isn’t a religious statement, he says, but a commentary on the human spirit.
“I was fascinated by people who’ve had these experiences saying there are no words to describe it, no human parallel,” Pulinkala says. But he imagined that dance and stage design, both wordless arts, could hint at “this mysterious and magical” environment. Enter the creative brain of Jaylin Gillam, a KSU technical designer. Their collaboration, you might say, was made in heaven.
Gillam began transforming the stage by creating a virtual-reality simulation of the school’s dance theater, a 360-degree immersive environment. During their creative meetings, Pulinkala wore a virtual-reality headset so he could experience the stage and Gillam’s evolving designs from any point in the theater.
The next step was to create moving images to be projected onto a black scrim covering the front of the stage. One of the images is of a spinning moon. “Ivan was so passionate about our work, he wanted to see the progress every week,” Gillam says, admitting he couldn’t always work that fast. When he first saw the finished product, Gillam noticed that some of the light filters through the scrim to create another level of mystery by illuminating the dancers beyond.
Pulinkala enjoys the “disruptive innovation” that occurs when you bring the voice of another artist into the creative process. “I love that marriage of art forms,” he says. In Moon Dust neither the dance nor the graphic design make sense independently. “There is always a level of dissonance,” says Gillam. “I am at my screen creating something that is pretty and beautiful in its own way, but it’s never going to stand alone. When you see all the pieces together, it’s hard to describe. I am in awe of what the dancers are able to do and how they elevate the visuals.”
People who’ve had near-death experiences say they move rapidly through a tunnel of light and in a second see everything, hear everything and know everything. “We developed movement language and images that express that,” Pulinkala says. “For example, the piece opens with two dancers being sucked into space” as if being pulled into the light. Moon Dust progresses through a series of duets and culminates with a male pas de deux representing the journey of soulmates.
Lock’s Bones brings audiences back to Earth, to the structure of our bodies and our communities. “Our skeletons hold us upright while we are alive, and carry our history and DNA after we die,” says the choreographer, a KSU assistant professor of dance. They also are a great leveler. “We are judged by what we look like and where we come from, but on the inside we all share the same bone structure. If we were judged just by our bones, we might not have so many ‘-isms’ in our society. I have a very diverse cast and the stage allowed me to create a society that works together. I wish that would happen everywhere.”
Trained in ballet in her native Switzerland, Lock was inspired early on by Pina Bausch, Jiří Kylián and Israeli contemporary dance. For all three, she says, “It’s about the humanity of the dancer, not the skill set. First we are human, then we are trained to move in specific ways. I hope Bones takes the audience on a journey where they see dancers come together as both individuals and as a community.”
The choreographers each created a unique movement language for their pieces. “The vocabulary is critical to the work’s success,” Pulinkala says. “It’s just as important as the choreography.” His was driven by the idea of particles, trails of dust left behind from out-of-body experiences. For Bones, Lock created a “really fun and interesting movement vocabulary” that challenged and pushed her student dancers into new and sometimes uncomfortable territory.
Both pieces offer KSU students the opportunity to grow as performers. The concert has a larger goal, too. It’s the second President’s Concert in the Arts, a series of annual events instituted by Pulinkala last year. Each highlights one of the four disciplinary units in the school’s College of the Arts. Last year it was music. This year it’s dance. Next will be theater, then art & design. Each event includes a reception for donors and is further evidence of Pulinka’s passion and vision for the arts in Atlanta.