Jesse Fleming, assistant professor of Emerging Media Arts, created “The Wilds,” a groundbreaking new performance experience with acclaimed choreographer Laurel Jenkins and Grammy-nominated producer/composer Lewis Pesacov.
“I think what audiences can be sure to expect is a very engaging event that has a lot of immersive qualities; is highly experimental; is sonic, kinetic and visual; and touches upon both our most primary, innate being and our potential in an uncertain future,” Fleming said.
“The Wilds” will be presented Oct. 6-15 at the Lied Center’s Johnny Carson Theater. Tickets are available now online, by phone at (402) 472-4747 and in person at the Lied Center box office.
Produced through a partnership between the Lied Center for Performing Arts and the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, “The Wilds” is a mixed reality performance experience where movement instantly becomes music as emerging technology allows dancers to create an immersive journey of sound, light and visual media in real time. Part mythology, part utopian vision, “The Wilds” fuses live dancers with motion capture technology and real-time animation inspiring a profound bond of a shared, collective experience.
“The Wilds” is made possible, in part, with a grant from the Hixson-Lied Endowment.
“I think what we’re seeing at this moment is this sort of acceleration of humanity into the virtual space,” Fleming said. “We’re working with the tension point of what does it mean to enter into a digital space, what does it mean to be in this body, this innate body of sensors, and what does it mean to mirror that outwardly? How does connection to each other and our unified belonging to earth exist at this time?”
The Lied Center’s Executive Director Bill Stephan said the Lied Center has been a developer and supporter of new works for decades.
“We consider it a vital part of our mission both as a leading national arts presenter and as part of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln,” Stephan said. “Since the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts opened its doors on the UNL campus in 2019, we’ve been working to find a meaningful way to collaborate, and when EMA professor Jesse Fleming began sharing his work putting live dancers in a real-time mixed reality environment, we had found our project.”
Fleming is the founding director of the Awareness-Based Design (ABD) Lab at the Carson Center. He traces the origins of “The Wilds” to 2017 when he and his partner moved from Los Angeles to northern California.
“It was the first time we had been out of a major city in 25 years,” Fleming said. “And I had been thinking a lot while in L.A. of how to start creating structures for emerging media to be informed by nature so that we’re not in this hall of mirrors creating self-replicating tech of tech because it’s collapsing civilization.”
He was asked by his gallery, Five Car Garage in Los Angeles, to prepare a proposal for an art fair in San Francisco for a live performance.
“That’s when I created the first draft for this project and reached out to Laurel and Lewis, who were both long-time collaborators,” Fleming said. “That show at the art fair didn’t culminate, but the proposal felt kind of alive to all of us.”
During the Covid pandemic, the three communicated over the internet and by Zoom to keep developing the project. Last year, Fleming was part of a three-class collaboration with Susan Ourada’s Dance Composition class, Jinku Kim’s Media Sound Design class and Fleming’s Creativity in Real Time class, which presented a series of live mixed reality performances during the Carson Center’s Open Studios event in December.
Eventually Fleming got support from the Lied Center for “The Wilds.” Fleming and his co-collaborators continued to develop the work through quarterly residencies.
“I think the pieces just came together,” Fleming said.
Fleming has received assistance at UNL from Assistant Professor of Theatre Michelle Harvey, who is doing the lighting design. He also has received support from Hewlett Packard for the technology used in creating “The Wilds” and worked with Harvard University’s Max Urbany on a machine learning collaboration to create animations used in the introduction and conclusion of the performance. He also credits Shane Bolan, who is the technical lead and developer at his ABD lab.
“Shane has been with my lab/creative studio as lead tech since I opened it in 2019,” Fleming said. “He is a brilliant coder and is very open to building and learning things that haven’t been done before. He has been an integral collaborator in nearly all of the projects that have come out of ABD. This is very true for ‘The Wilds.’ What we are doing is often developed by large teams. In our case, it has primarily been undergraduate research assistants, Shane and me.”
Fleming is excited for “The Wilds” to premiere.
“I think it feels like a new-ish territory for me,” he said. “For me, personally, as one of the co-creators, my driving and underlying interest remains focused on how we can use technology to augment the limitations of our innate perception. Because I think much of our behavior is stemming from what we think is true. But we know, for instance, that space is not invisible and that what happens in one location of space affects another. But we don’t feel it, see it or hear it in a way that we understand. My passion for this type of work is to foster the capacity for the growth of human awareness. To live fully is to understand interdependence. At our core, everyone wants to feel a connection, and sometimes it’s hard because we don’t realize how connected we already are.”
Fleming said it was only natural for him to have the premiere in Lincoln.
“I seem to always work close to home, at least in the beginning, wherever I am,” he said. “I tend to just focus on whatever is here right now, and I’m very relationship based so I’ll work with whoever is sort of in the room, so to speak. It feels like a natural extension from the support the project has been given, from the startup of my lab, through this research period and through my capacity for collaboration with dance and Jinku Kim.”
Following the performance at the Lied Center, “The Wilds” will travel to Middlebury College in Vermont and then to Los Angeles.
“I appreciate the Lied Center wanting to take a chance on ‘The Wilds,’” Fleming said. “It can be good that we all kind of experiment together.”