It’s a November evening at Dance Place in Brookland, and a crowd has packed the theater to see some good modern dance. Certainly, it’s in for some: The program’s relentlessly innovative performer—dancer, choreographer, and George Washington University professor Maida Withers—is, at 74, D.C.’s grand dame of dance. And for the first half of the program she’s the lone figure on stage, clad in a white dress, her presence piercing.

Piercing, that is, if you remember to look at her.

Usually, Withers doesn’t have to compete for an audience’s attention. But on this night, she’s little match for the video projected on an enormous screen behind her. Never static, and depicting nature scenes from Withers’ world travels, the film is impossible to ignore. The dancer and her choreography simply get lost in the dark.

If you follow the city’s dance companies, then you know this scene wasn’t unusual last year. In 2010, the use of video in dance performances felt just about ubiquitous.

D.C.’s choreographers first started using video in live performances at least a decade ago, but the phenomenon reached high pitch last year. Shows by some of the city’s best known names in dance—Liz Lerman, Dana Tai Soon Burgess, Gesel Mason, Withers—as well as many smaller groups featured moving images projected on stage. And while a handful were skillfully crafted with videos that contributed to a coherent whole, for the most part, the projections either dominated or seemed disconnected and superfluous.

Adding projected images to enhance a dance performance is nothing new. The pioneering modern dance figure Loie Fuller used projections in the late 1800s; throughout the 20th century so did the Ballets Russes and Alwin Nikolais. In 1994, Bill T. Jones received a lot of flack—and spawned a range of imitators—with his piece “Still/Here,” which included videos of interviews with non-dancers.

In recent years, big-name choreographers like Bebe Miller and William Forsythe have earned critical acclaim for the way they incorporated video into their performances. But the list of choreographers who haven’t done a great job is long—and includes plenty of names at the local level. For small groups on very limited budgets (that’d be most of Washington’s companies), video is a relatively cheap and easy way to create context and ambiance. That means it’s also easy to misuse.

Vexed traditionalists might throw their hands up and call for dancers to return to front and center. The reality is that the use of video onstage is here to stay; if anything, you’ll only see it more often.

“It’s part of the fabric of our lives now, and so incorporating it into a proscenium presentation is almost inevitable,” says Meg Booth, the Kennedy Center’s director of programming for dance. Other programming administrators at venues across town echo her sentiment, agreeing that video can be a draw to coveted, attention-stretched twentysomething audiences.

Fine. There’s no doubt that well-done video projection can seriously enhance a production’s quality. But that starts with a choreographer viewing video as another compositional element that has to be understood and shaped before it can become part of the production—i.e., taking off the dancer hat and putting on the cap of a visual designer.

There is, of course, no single surefire way to successfully marry movement and projections. But according to a host of area choreographers, teachers, and videographers, there are a handful of principles worth sticking to.

Think Integrated

Video has to support a piece without dominating it. The best way to get there is by including it from day one. “What works is when the choreographer has engaged with the images they want to have and has choreographed around that concept, instead of choreographing a dance and then adding a background,” says Carla Perlo, Dance Place’s director.

Take Dana Tai Soon Burgess’s “Island,” which showed at Dance Place this October and included photos of faces projected on dancers from above. Burgess and designer Sara Brown conceived the images before Burgess choreographed the piece, and projections went through six drafts while the movement was developed.

At the other end of the spectrum is Dance Box Theater’s “Affectations,” which ran at the Millennium Stage in October and featured swirling images that changed in sync with the dancers’ steps. It had the effect of a giant screen saver, whose relationship to the overall concept was never clear.

Moving Images Are Attractive

Everyone has been primed for the language of video. But the language of dance is a lot harder to grasp—which means that video tends to overtake it.

Maybe that’s OK. Choreographer Liz Lerman, for example, says she doesn’t mind if her choreography in “The Matter of Origins” (premiered in September at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center) winds up secondary to the nearby images; it’s more important to her that the audience understands the underlying ideas, and the videos help with that.

But choreographers who employ busy images should be mindful that they’re forcing the audience to choose what to look at—and that video is likely to win.

“The main thing to get away from is dance happening with a film going on upstage,” says Kirby Malone, half of Fairfax-based Cyburbia Productions, which creates multimedia effects for theater and dance groups. “That’s where most of the bad work happens.” So what’s up with the inevitable screen behind the dancers? Sure, it’s the most obvious way of showing a movie, but any surface that reflects light can display an image—a T-shirt, the floor, a stack of cards held by a performer.

And if it’s got to be a screen, be as inventive as Ben Levy, who transformed Dance Place this January with screens on all four sides of a square stage as his San Francisco-based group, Levydance, performed in the middle.

Be Picky
Like all performers, dancers are perfectionists. The steps, the costumes, the makeup—it’s all got to be just right before anything is allowed on stage. So why do so many companies have problems with not-great projection quality, angles that distort their images, or projectors that momentarily show desktops or cursors?

Ironically, arguably the best use of onstage video last year was by a theater director and professor, Natsu Onoda Power, who premiered her original production “Madness and Civilization” at Georgetown University in February. Not only were her images incredibly inventive—a water line projected on a box to simulate drowning, an on-screen guy bedeviling the flesh-and-blood version of the same dude—but each one lined up perfectly and was executed without a hitch.

“It’s so tempting to use video to fill a space, but it can’t just be a cheap trick,” says Power, explaining what guides her choices. “Only in the context of the performance does it become complete in itself.”

Photo of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange’s “The Matter of Origins” by Jaclyn Borowski/courtesy Liz Lerman Dance Exchange