Using dance, tech to tell stories at TEDxDayton

IDEAS PERSON: RODNEY VEAL

In the last few weeks, we’ve used this space to introduce some of the people who will speaking at the first TEDxDayton event, on Nov. 15 at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton. The event is a local version of the TED talks (technology, entertainment and design) known internationally at TED.com. Some of those on stage that day will be performers — such as Rodney Veal, an adjunct dance teacher at Stivers School for the Arts and Sinclair Community College. He’ll be leading a team of Stivers students in a new piece he choreographed for the TEDx event. We caught up with this well-known local artist this week to talk about it all. To learn more about how to attend, go to TEDxDayton.com.

Q: What interested you in being part of the TEDxDayton event?

A: The fact that I love TED talks, and have been following them for years. When I heard there was an opportunity to present in Dayton, I jumped at it. I was referred by a friend who said, “This is right up your alley,” which was pretty cool. TED talks shake up your train of thought on things and refocus you in a different direction. Sort of a mental course correction. I love them. And there are some really good dance ones, too. When your idols appear on TED, you just bow down and say, “Wow.”

Q: Idols such as …?

A: My favorite TED talk is by Wayne McGregor — he’s the resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet, but his training is in postmodern dance, not ballet, so he’s incorporated science, technology and all kinds of things into his work. For his talk, he had two dancers from his company and he created a two-minute work with them based on his philosophies and style, and explained the process as he went, letting the audience watch it happen. So he demystified that creative process for people, and showed the intellectual aspects of it, rather than just showing it as movement.

Q: So what will you be doing on the Victoria stage?

A: I created a piece called “Light and Shadows,” based on my interest in the intersection and collision of art and technology. We’ll be using video imagery and projecting onto the dancers’ bodies, nine Stivers students, so they become immersed in it. I love the idea of creating an environment, interaction and interplay of moving bodies, so that it’s not so static. This is also about starting with something personal and making it universal. I recently was diagnosed as legally blind in my right eye, and went through the whole thing of, was it a brain tumor, or what? It turned out to be from the after-effects of another illness and the medication I was taking for it. So now at age 49, I have glaucoma, and an issue of blurry vision, shapes and shadows. How I see the world is altered — some things clear, some things out of focus. So translating that into movement is a kind of storytelling. Using the technology adds layers of meaning, so that it is multi-dimensional, and not just a pretty dance.

Q: Where did the technology interest come in for you?

A: It’s a relatively recent fascination that began when I went to graduate school fairly late in life — when I was 42, to get an MFA at the Ohio State University, and their dance department has a really big technology component. Not only do they have deep pockets, but they also have the latest cutting-edge stuff. Bebe Miller, their artist in residence, is a postmodern genius and works with a lot of technology. I got to work with her. But anything you can dream up, they can help make happen. It was wonderful, discovering and changing your whole perspective on dance-making and what was possible. I took to it like a fish to water. It changed the way I see things.

Q: What’s your background?

A: I’m from Dayton, born and raised, and went to Eastern Michigan University. I started dancing there 22 years ago as a phys-ed requirement. But I have a visual-arts degree, a double major with political science. I was kind of an odd kid.

Q: Political science?

A: Right, I really thought about politics. Maybe it’s a left brain-right brain duality thing. I really love voter statistics. I got a kick out of trying to figure how voters would respond to political questions, and how to get people elected. When I was in school, this was in its infancy, nobody was really studying the effects of the media on voting, or how TV affected political behavior. Now, of course, it’s a big deal.

Q: How did you get from there to art?

A: I was working a desk job and missed being creative and moving around. I gained weight and needed to get physical again. I started dancing to work out, at the Dayton Ballet School, and my idol and mentor there, Bess Imber, saw something in me. I lost weight, worked hard and got invited to be in the Dayton Ballet second company. She really challenged me, being able to respond to somebody who sees that kind of potential in you.

Q: So, the TEDx performance?

A: When I stopped dancing, I fell in love with choreography, and was lucky to have the chance to create some ballets that were recognized and attracted some fellowships. I went to grad school to recharge and become bolder in my approach, and come at it in new ways. My students get the benefit of that. When I come in and use video and technology to challenge the notion of traditional choreography, I’m showing them a different way of looking at movement. I hope it will make them better dancers, better people, more informed about the process of dance.

Q: You describe it as transformative.

A: Well, dancers are very focused and and disciplined, mentally and physically. We’re who you want when you work on a project — we take direction well. But dance also allows you to connect to the world in a new way — your sensitivity level to other human beings, their presence and who they are, increases. The physical intimacy of touching other people, of moving through space, makes you a more grounded and aware person. More aware of your surroundings, your place in the world, your mere presence as a mover through space. You learn not to take it lightly. It is a very powerful bond of connection. It has humbled me.

Q: What do you hope the TEDx audience takes away?

A: That here is somebody who started late with his investigation of technology and what it is capable of, and how it can affect the creative process, and to think about how to incorporate that into their own workplaces — whether the boardroom, the mailroom, the restaurant — on a daily basis, and not just think, Oh, this is something that just an artist does. That they can draw upon that creativity, too, and introduce it into everyday, modern society. That’s what I hope they get.

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