"Extending the body - Extending the space for dance"

(This article is directed at dancers unfamiliar with computers.)

Consider your focus on space while dancing. Do you think of space as a constant factor, or does the dynamic quality of your movement change the space you dance in? Consider your body and other bodies while dancing, and apply the same train of thought. Consider the essence of dance and then consider dancing in a virtual space with virtual bodies. Consider the computer as a tool used to create virtual environments inhabitted by intellegent virtual bodies, and consider the possibilities of interacting in that space. Consider the possibilities and consequences of merging virtual and real bodies and space.

The body facing technology

As the possibilities for communication are ever increasing through the development of computer-based technology, it seems that dance is getting left behind in the studio.

Interactive art projects are being produced by the bucketfull, while those involving dancers on a creative level can be collected in a tea cup. To me this seems idiotic. Many of the interactive projects I am aware of challenge participants to reconsider their conception of the habitual self, also in relationship to other selves (virtual and/or real), time and space, by exploring a virtual environment sustained by human interaction with digital technology. Processes, hypothesis, concepts, etc, are made available through audio, visual and sensory intergration.

An example of one such interactive art project which will ring home in the heart of every dancer is Osmose, created by Char Davies and John Harrison. Osmose is a soft-seamed (by this I mean that the 3D spacescapes are of an organic nature rather than hard-edged forms) Virtual Reality installation where immersants navigate a synthetic environment whereby breathing in and out controls alltitude, and body-tilting to control direction of passage. This navigatory system was inspired by the real life scuba diving experiences of Char Davies. With this in mind it is worth considering the potential creative influence of a dancer, and what a dancer's body "knows" of it's relationship to movement, transformation, time and space.

Even in the most traditional classical ballet class, we are extending body lines into space, curving and bending, setting in motion the space around us, developing our space awareness to such an extent that we sense the presence of the other dancers around us; perfect qualities for taking a step into virtual space.

As dancers we physically experience/learn abstract principles of for example, physics, mathematics and geometry, through direct interaction with our environment and each other. We create and reproduce long movement sequences and can repeat them with a precision of time and space. We constantly reform our bodies to take on the demands of different choreographies. We do not necessarily maintain a single identity throughout a dance performance. (All these are current subjects for experimentation - and expression - of many digital artists and researchers.)

We are often told that we do not have a developed language, or established vocabulary, if you like, for describing our work. I strongly oppose this view. Enter a choreographical workshop of any calliber and you will immediately be informed of the principles to be explored with regards to use of the body and it's relationship to time and space. Each choreographer worth their brass forms her/his own vocabulary based upon artistic intentions intergrated with practical, physical, anatomical principles. Our language is rich, diverse and is falling into the mouths of scientists, academics, digital artists, and so on .......... The fact that our language is not systemised under an all-encompassing umbrella is no drawback. Space is made available for reconsideration, experimentation and discovery.

We do not think in straight lines. We are prime candidates for creative involvment in the digital arena.

Without direct involvment in new technological developments, dance material runs the risk of becoming a passive resource in the hands of others.

The body reluctant.

It seems that dancers are reluctant to enter the technological landscape because, on the surface, it appears so removed from our 'body' work - a bit like learning to drive a car when your only experience has been riding a horse. It is hard to appreciate the values of computer technology as a resource for extending one's own creativity. A computer can't 'make' anything for you; there must be an idea behind a work as in any creative process, and choices have to be made more than ever before. Dance writer and choreographer Susan Kozel has participated in Paul Sermon's split-location installation entitled Telematic Dreaming. In simple terms, Susan was required to interact through movement with participants located in another room. This was made possible by mapping realtime video images of the two rooms onto each other in a telematic process. By continually surveying monitors placed around the room (showing this doubled-up realtime video relay) participaters could, for example, touch each other- "virtually". An environment was created where virtual relationships could be explored through movement interaction.

Susan related her experiences of moving in the parameters of a virtual environment directly to (her) conception of physicality, also digging deeper into the pleasures and parodies of body-mind existence. In her article for the Dance Theatre Journal entitled Reshaping Space; focusing time, she cross-referenses these experiences to her work as achoreographer and dancer. Susan writes;

Multi media computer research moves beyond the basic audio-visual framework by introducing two major elements; gesture and interactivity. As long ago as 1990, Claude Cadoz, a French virtual reality researcher, saw the challenge posed by gesture in a world dominated by research into sound and image. In his opinion, human gesture could be captured, transmitted, restituted, processed and memorised if the equiptment used is subtle and efficient enough. When this train of scientific thought is combined with frequently-stated claim that researchers in computers and artificial intellegence look to the arts to provide impetus for new developments in virtual technologies, there is an open invitation for dance to take the stage.

(Volume 12, No. 2, Autumn 1995, The Laban Centre for Movement and Dance)

Tools for choreographers

(also working as producers, managers, promoters, directors, accountants, etc!!!!!!!)

As well as a channel for artistic expression, the evolving digital technology can offer choreographers a host of work aids, making survival in the professional dance world more congenial. I have tried to focus this section on (more) readily available tools - eg. programmes and facalities that can be run on relatively cheap desktop computers, rather than high-end-of-the-market, less accessible equiptment.

1 The Internet

Participation in Internet activities offers a new forum for dance by offering virtual spaces for realtime, multiple user/location interaction and work sharing possibilities.

After initial investmement, access to the Internet offers;

  • a speedy information and communication resource on an international basis. video-conferencing facilities
  • a channel for advertising forthcoming events,
  • an opportunity to enter discussion groups, air ideas and find out about current developments in the arts across national boundaries,
  • an opportunity to meet new collaboration partners. 2 Life Forms

    Life Forms is a programme for character animation developed by Thecla Schiphorst. Thecla has a background as a dancer and choreographer which is clearly reflected in the user-friendly interface of this programme. It can be used as choreographical tool in which structures and movements can be discovered and explored before applying them to dancers. Life Forms has its own user group on the Internet designed as a help and work-sharing service for Life Forms users. You can obtain a free demonstration version from the Life Forms Homepage and try it out yourself.

    Merce Cunningham was heavily involved in the further development of Life Forms, and has subsequently used this animation programme to create several dance works. Those familiar with the Cunningham technique will clearly feel his influence. The process of animating the Life Forms figures is quite time consuming if you wish to achieve results directly resembling human movement. It is difficult to atain a sense of drama with the Life Forms animation figures as thier human body representations do not move under the normal physical conditions that gravity, for example, imposes on physical bodies. However, Life Forms is an ideal tool for mapping pathways and structures for groups of dancers before starting rehearsal, and for keeping track of changes and adjustments during rehersal. The trick is not to get hung up on creating finished works. Time is most valuably spent by looking at formations from different angles and to throw new light on eventual final choices. Life Forms is fun to use as a source for inspiration for renewing movement material.

    3 Animation

    For those interested in working with animation, Lifeforms can also be combined with, for example, a software called Swivel. Swivel allows you to coat surface frameworks with a layer of your choice, working within other software programmes giving figures their own character (n.b, you are not restricted to working with a human body representation, and with a 3D programme you can build your own virtual environment)- scaley forms on a plate of jelly if that's what you're in to. You may choose from extensive pre-programmed menus of surfaces, or you can spend hours creating your own.

    I think it is appropriate to add at this point that there are many digital artists who have been working with this type of animation for years, and maybe a choreographer/digital artist collaboration would be the most fruitful workform for budding choreographers with animation ambitions. On the other hand, it is always possible to work with animation sketches before embarking on a collaboration project, and sometimes fresh hands on new tools do produce inovating results.

    4 Labanwriter

    Labanwriter is a programme for simplifying and speeding up the task of documenting dance and movement using Labanotation. I have no personal experience of using Labanwriter, but am assured it does the job, faster, clearer and generally better than the human hand alone.

    5 Improvisation Technologies - self meant to govern

    This work is described as a digital dance learning equipment; an autonomous education tool for rehearsal, allowing work in progress to be developed further by the dancer also (who hardly never worked with the computer before) - William Forsythe.

    Improvisation Technologies is not a computer programme. It is a digital documentation of Forsythe's work expressed through video, audio and text material. A user can click his/her way through a series of descriptions of work-in-progress, movement techniques, composition and improvisation technique, and performance material . The interface is designed to allow for direct access from, for example, a demonstration of a compostional technique (expressed through a video clip of Forsythe himself), to a video clip of that specified example in practise in a performance situation.

    This work cannot in itself be considered a tool for choreographers - the computer and the video camera are the tools, and the work is specifically designed to communicate Forsythe's principles of movement, choreography and improvisation. It also requires large amounts of computer memory, and is not available for purchase. In this respect, it falls out of my low-budge/accessability category. It does, however, show how computer competence can be used to allow a dancer to study a choreographer's intentions and explore movement material at his/her own pace without the physical presence of the choreographer.

    6 Sound

    Sound editing and manipulating softwares are being used by choreographers with the know-how to create their own soundscores for dance works. Sketches of possible soundscores and structures can be developed in a collaborative processes (with a composer, for example). Fill your computer with soundbytes, lug it down to your dance studio and experiment with different combinations of movement and sound!

    7 Video editing

    It is possible to edit video material on a computer for presentation either as finished work or as a sketch for work with a video artist/technician, hence cutting out/lowering the expense of hiring video-suite time and technician costs. At present, running professional video editing programmes and storing video material requires a vast amount of computer memory which is not readily available on your desk-top computer. It is possible to edit short video sequences using so-called non-professional editing programmes which take less space than the fully grown versions. In this way choreographers with access to a video camera and a computer can try out small sequences and get an idea of how they would like to work in the proffessional studio, or use the restrictions as a challenge to their own aristic expression and creativity.

    Once again, by learning to operate such programmes, choreographers are gaining the opportunity of using their own skills of phrasing and sensibility to movement, enabling them to be directly involved in their own video presentations, either as a documentary resource, or as a means of artistic expression.

    8 Photographic material from video

    By 'snapping' frames from a video recording into a computer, it is possible to capture pictures of 'movement' and reproduce them for either documentational purposes, for use in programs and posters, or as movement statements in themselves. Pictures can be digitally manipulated to extend the expression or improve the quality of the reproduction.

    9 Interactive performance and/or installation

    I donot intend to attempt to cover this topic in any detail here as my intentions with this part of the article have been to present possible ways that choreographers can use digital technology as a tool. Some of the tools used for building material (sound, video, animation, etc) used in the creation of interactive works have already been covered. For those wanting to create such works it might be worth looking at midi systems for the realtime triggering of computer generated material, or for those with Internet access, video conferencing facilities present interesting oppurtunities for low-budge split-location experimentation.

    I would like to point out, however, that in order to be able to describe a work as being "interactive" an exchange of information - be it audio, visual, textual and/or sensory - must take place in so-called realtime. So, a dancer performing infront of a pre-recorded video image, whether or not the image has been manipulated using digital technology, cannot (to my mind, anyway) be seen as an interactive work. In the same way, a work created with the help of an animation programme such as Life Forms, but performed in a traditional theatre setting on live bodies, though influenced by the digital process also falls out of the "interactive" category.

    As far as I see it, the possibilities for interactive work involving digital technology fall into two main catergories:

    Rounding off

    I would like to sum up this article by refering to my neighbour's cat.

    He eats tinned cat food each day. While looking after him this weekend, I offered him some chicken which he promptly refused. However, I later caught him in the act of rumaging through my rubbish bin. He found a chicken bone and sniffed it. He licked it. He turned it over, took a few steps back and regarded it with distaste. Or was it sceptisism? He moved cautiously forward, licked it again and found it really quite a tasty morsel. So - if you regard digital technology as a load of trash, or a foreign dish which has no place on your table, try another sniff - you might like the taste of it after all.

    Amanda Steggell, november 1995, re-edited 1996.