Technology has opened doors of possibility for numerous art forms, and dance is no exception. As someone who knows quite a bit about dance, and has watched countless dance presentations, I have been skeptical about technology’s increasing role in the performance. Why isn’t it enough to just dance? What are the choreographer’s intentions with including technology? And, most importantly, what is the effect of the technological component? Is it necessary?
I started my research by exploring Synchronous Objects, an interactive website which looks at the piece One Flat Thing, reproduced by William Forsythe. A group of faculty members at Ohio State University took the filmed dance and laid digital animations over certain movements, which extended or emphasized significant gestures or connections between the dancers. The site contains several other “synchronous objects,” or digital
tools, that the user can click on to investigate factors such as space, tempo, relationships, and density of the dance. It’s absolutely fascinating to mess around with. But what’s the point? I found an essay written by Forsythe called “Choreographic Objects,” in which he explains his intentions for the installation. It seems that one of the main questions Forsythe was interested in whether choreographic principles could be presented in another form besides the body. He finished his essay by explaining, “A choreographic object is not a substitute for the body, but rather an alternative site for the understanding of potential instigation and organization of action to reside. Ideally, choreographic ideas in this form would draw an attentive, diverse readership that would eventually understand and, hopefully, champion the innumerable manifestations, old and new, of choreographic thinking.” I was a bit skeptical of these thoughts. Dance without the body? Why do we need an alternative? I had never thought of even wanting to find separation there, but it seems that Forsythe believed technology can show more about the choreographic process to a wide range of people if technology is used. So, is the goal then to completely change the dance experience? From this final thoughts, is his goal to make dance more about the process than the performance? What is going on here?!
Feeling uncertain about my own views on this, I moved on to read as essay by Bill T. Jones called “Dancing and Cameras,” which outlined his own experience with combining dance and technology. The essay mentioned one of his pieces from 1999 called Ghostcatching, so I paused my reading and searched YouTube for a video. I’m honestly struggling to give words to what I saw. In short, a camera filmed Jones improvising, and then artists took that material and created a virtual version of Jones with added digital lines that extended and complimented the movements. The piece, while a bit frightening and creepy, felt
surprisingly real to me. The simplicity of the drawn figures did not feel overwhelming, but rather they seemed to accurately explain human movement. It was almost as if the lack of flesh and substance in the dancing form forced me to view the body as mere outlines, revealing the bare bones of movement, in the same way that a frame of a house allows you to see the process and history of the building yet to come. Anyway, I continued with my reading, hoping to gain insight into Jones’ choreographic and technical intentions. He explained how Ghostcatching and similar installations, “solved a problem for the solo performer: how to take a recess from the stage without breaking the flow of the evening.” So was his goal to allow dancers to take a water break? This actually kind of bothered me. Dancing is not about taking breaks, dancing is about pushing your body’s limits, in real time, for an audience (or yourself). Why would an audience want to witness dancing without also seeing raw, human exertion? Well now I may be feeling contradictory, since I just explained my own fascination with the piece. At the very least, watching a piece like Ghostcatching certainly gives the performance a different feel, a sort of perfect picture in which nothing can “go wrong,” a foil for live performance.
In my conclusion of this investigation, I find myself feeling conflicted. It seems to me that the intentions of Forsythe and Jones are to transform dance into an experience that emphasizes technology over traditional human movement, trying to imitate dance without actual bodies. But perhaps I am being too cynical. The technology certainly allows an audience to see beyond the movement, in a way that isn’t possible with traditional dance performance. For example, with the synchronous objects, laying digital lines and arcs over the dancers reveal certain patterns and relationships that may not be as evident. Is the piece still significant without this technology? Certainly. However, the technology enhances the experience by offering more possibilities for exploration into the choreographic and performance processes. Similarly, with Ghostcatching, technology tools are used to force the viewer to look at the negative space, seeing the body as an outline, and giving more room for imagination. But on the other hand, is this kind of technology taking away from the wonder of a physical body in space, performing something that cannot be paused or fast-forwarded? This phenomenon is similar to the difference between a movie and a live theater performance: we consider both to be significant in their own ways, and each requires a certain skill set and audience expectation. So maybe I am over-thinking this. Re-examining my first questions about the effect of the technology and the necessity of it, I have only found clear answers for the former. The effect of the technological component in these installations is essentially to slow down the movement or elongate it in a way that furthers audience understanding. By adding digital lines to accentuate the dancers’ limbs in Synchronous Objects, the audience can better appreciate the choreographer’s vision behind the piece. The same goes for Ghostcatching. But is this necessary? Or really, necessary to accomplish what? A technological component is not necessary for showcasing a piece of choreography to an audience, but if the goal is something different, that’s where technology could become a necessary tool.
- Synchronous Objects: http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu
- Forsythe Essay: http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/assets/objects/conceptThreadsAnimation/WilliamForsythe-ChoreographicObjects.pdf