'Collapse' performance combines science, art at Mondavi

"COLLAPSE (suddenly falling down)," a choreographed performance mixing the work of artists, scientists and computer-generated images--including 3-D visualization technology used in the KeckCAVES--began a two-week run at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts Oct. 25.

The stage production looks "at the precarious state of our planet as it becomes overburdened with the cycle of work, consumption and waste," said director/choreographer Della Davidson in her director's notes. The work addresses the demise of structures and civilizations, as well as more subtle losses of faith or hope.

"This piece approaches the idea of collapse in many, many different ways, so that it allows a more metaphorical perspective," Davidson says in a 15-minute podcast interview with Mondavi Executive Director Don Roth.

Geophysicist Louise Kellogg, chair of the Geology Department, and geology Professor Dawn Sumner are two of a half-dozen campus academics credited as science collaborators on the piece. Kellogg is director of the W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences--KeckCAVES--and Sumner is a member. They had seen Davidson's work before, and Sumner knew the artist; both she and Davidson were Chancellor's Fellows in 2003-04.

"We invited her to see the KeckCAVES because we thought she'd be interested," Kellogg said. "And she was. We didn't have a specific idea of collaboration at that time, just a general idea, but the timing was perfect because Della was interested in incorporating technology in her performance, and her theme this time was c ollapse. . . . The timing just worked out beautifully."

Sumner and Kellogg approached Davidson soon after "Collapse (suddenly falling down)" scriptwriter Ed Gaible told Davidson he was interested in exploring ideas about how cultural and ecological systems collapse. Gaible had just read the 2005 book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," by UCLA geography Professor Jared Diamond. Davidson was interested in creating a work reflecting the political and social turmoil of the time. The collaboration spread to involve more scientists and artists, leading to this fall's performances.

"I really love her work, which is very creative and addresses lot of difficult issues," Kellogg said. "I like the way she incorporates a lot of different elements."

The text for the piece has a "sense of narrative about it," Davidson tells Roth, but the work contains "a lot of ideas that are put together, and so it'll be up to the audience to kind of accumulate all these ideas, and make their own narrative." The performers will interact with images, and the audience will be offered special glasses so they can see the images in 3-D.

"The audience will see several things," Kellogg said. "She has dancers and actors, so they are performing a piece she has created. There's a stage. They'll see performers. There's a text, so the actors are speaking lines, and there's a score."

"From the technology side of it," she said, "the audience will essentially see a screen that has projected onto it a visualization of some earth science data, which is a LiDAR scan, of places where disasters have occurred or might occur."

"One of the scans is of a landslide that occurred in Southern California a couple of years ago, where many houses were damaged," Kellogg said. Another is a mining site in Oklahoma where lead and zinc were mined to make bullets for World War I; residents of the area worry that the underground former mines might collapse.

Another element of the technology involves two other UC Davis collaborators, computer scientist Oliver Kreylos and Michael Neff. Neff is an assistant professor in computer science and technocultural studies, and his research involves understanding human movement.

"We have installed his motion capture system in the theatre," Kellogg said. "So the dancers' movements will be tracked by a computer system, which will move the images on the screen according to how the dancers move."

"No one's ever done this before, as far as we know," Davidson tells Roth in the podcast. "When we get in the theater, with all the stuff, that's when we'll see what's really going to happen."

The performance is a joint production of the Mondavi and the Sideshow Physical Theatre, the resident professional company of the Mondavi Center and the campus Department of Theatre and Dance. Davidson, a professor of theatre and dance at UC Davis, started Sideshow in 2002.

The performance is scheduled in the 250-seat Studio Theatre Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 25-28 and Nov. 1-4. All shows start at 8 p.m. except for the ones on Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, which start at 7 p.m.; each lasts about 80 to 90 minutes. Tickets cost $29 for adults, $14.50 for students and children.