Hammerstep Co-Founder on Intersection Between Dance and Technology

Hammerstep Co-Founders Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman

Hammerstep Co-Founders Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman

Hammerstep is a progressive modern dance company with influences from historically rebellious dance forms, including Irish, tap, hip hop and African stepping. It was initially conceptualized in 2009 as an experiment in progressive Irish dance by two-time World Champion Irish dancer Garrett Coleman and longstanding Riverdance principal Jason Oremus and strives to push artistic boundaries through the use of technology and thought-provoking themes.

Since Hammerstep’s official US premiere at New York City’s Lincoln Center in May 2011, the movement has inspired others worldwide to progress the Irish dance form and change its conveyance to the public.

The company’s latest endeavor is a site-specific, immersive experience called INDIGO GREY set in the post-apocalyptic future. The performance will feature an adventure style format in which audience members will walk through the space, enveloped by animated projection mapping, the group’s signature style of dance, and a live soundscape. INDIGO GREY is in development at the New Museum’s incubator lab, NEW INC in Soho NYC, and is expected to premiere in 2016.

AMT-Lab contributor Katie Grennan caught up with co-founder Garrett Coleman to talk about how technology has allowed him to take his innovative dance company to the next level.

KATIE GRENNAN: As the founder of Hammerstep and as an entrepreneur, how does the use of technology help you get work done on a day-to-day basis?

GARRETT COLEMAN: As a dancer-choreographer by trade, technology is certainly not my forte but I use it every day in a management capacity—through apps like TrelloGoogle DriveSlack, and OwnCloud. Apps like Photoshop and iMovie also help with quick output to keep our audiences engaged. On a higher level, we at Hammerstep are also exploring the use of cutting edge technology in the creation of experiential performance environments, using projection mapping, midi triggers, wearable technology, and augmented reality to fully immerse an audience and help them “feel” movement and rhythm more deeply.

KG: Your crowdfunding campaign was selected as a top pick by Kickstarter. Can you give any advice about the process to arts managers who are interested in raising funds for their organizations through crowdsourcing mediums? How did you decide to go with Kickstarter versus other options? What was most challenging about the process?

GC: Kickstarter was our top choice over other crowdfunding platforms due to its “fully fund or receive nothing” high-pressure platform structure, as well as its name recognition amongst the public. If we had used a platform where we would receive whatever we raised, regardless of the goal, we might not have gotten the amount of funding we really needed because fans would not have felt the pressure to share the campaign and to help us meet our goal. We felt that our idea was compelling enough and that our fan network ran deep enough that people would want to see the project funded, and we knew we needed a sizable sum to get the show’s development off the ground. It was definitely a risk to set our goal so high ($75 k), since theater projects typically don’t ask for such a sum. However, by setting the bar high, we created the need for an immense amount of output and fan-building during those 60 days, and as a result, the company is still riding on that buzz. As it is less and less reliable these days to rely on grant money, we are also challenging the dominant arts-funding route by leveraging the Kickstarter money raised as a means to secure further funding from angel philanthropists and investors. Some may see this model as too commercial, but we see it as necessary for establishing a larger sustainable impact of artistically integrous work amidst a challenging arts-funding climate in America today.

KG: How do you feel technology changes an audience’s engagement with Hammerstep’s work? 

GC: Technology is so intertwined with our daily existence, yet it has not been pervasively explored in performing arts. While immersive shows have broken the fourth wall and engaged audiences in new and exciting ways, technology is rarely utilized in this interaction. To explore intertwining tech with experiential immersive performance is to bridge that gap, and we see it as a great opportunity for audiences to have rich multi-sensory experiences in which they are provoked to explore some of the deepest questions we face as humans in the digital age. Breaking down barriers in performance space has always been part of Hammerstep’s mission, and utilizing technology in that exploration is the logical next step. 

KG: How do you feel that the rapidly changing technology landscape impacts entrepreneurial ventures such as yours?

GC: Dance and performing arts companies are forced to compete with diminishing audience attention spans and a flooded entertainment market, where there is really no perceived need to get off the couch anymore. In my mind, to provide deeply engaging storytelling and transformative experiences for an audience means moving away from the traditional theater model to get people actively engaged in performance in ways that they could not otherwise do sitting in front of a screen. 

KG: What do you see as an upcoming technology trend in the entrepreneurial and socially driven arts space?

GC: There appears to be a wave of companies across media platforms—film, performing arts, video gaming, etc.--who are exploring interactive technology, such as websites/apps, VR, projection mapping, and the use of livestream platforms to reach global audiences. This use of technology is hopefully a way to better engage and connect audiences with each other and the performers themselves, and to provide more transformative interaction with the arts in general.