Shapes and graces in an infinite space

July 11, 1997

Claire Neesham reports on experiments with dance that use 3-D software and video-conferencing over the Internet to explore new movement

It is late evening in Vancouver and Susan Kozel, a foundation lecturer in the department of dance studies at the University of Surrey, is ready to begin her contribution to the electronic cabaret at the Body Electric festival. Meanwhile in London dawn is breaking and Ruth Gibson is ready for an early start in the dance studio. Gibson is to perform with Kozel, the connection between the two artists being made by the Internet.

Each performer can see a video projection of the other. The video images are sent across the Internet using CU-See Me, a program from Cornell University.

Kozel and Gibson follow a previously discussed framework designed to explore whether it was possible to convey the sensations of eating a doughnut or splashing water on your face, electronically. Sometimes the camera is close to the performers. At other times the performers move away in an attempt to see if they could give each other the feeling of closeness or distance.

Later, Kozel says that she did feel a strong physical connection with Ruth, even though the quality of images transmitted using CU-See Me is erratic at best. You can see the images building and rebuilding, she says, adding that at one point all she could see of Ruth on her monitor was five isolated squares of face. In some ways, she says, these limitations can add to the performance, and bar a hot and hungry hound eating Kozel's doughnut and drinking the water, both performers agree that their remote performance over the Internet was a success.

From a distance dance may seem the most corporeal of art forms, and the least likely to find a happy marriage with technology. In fact, the two disciplines have a long history of flirtation. At the turn of the century, for example, the American modern dancer Loie Fuller experimented with the new electric lights in her performances. The collaboration between the American choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage frequently referred to computers and video. Indeed, Cunningham was one of the first choreographers to make works for film, rather than merely filming works made for the stage.

Cunningham has recently explored the use of a computer program called Life Forms. This program, which was developed by Simon Fraser University in Canada, allows the choreographer to generate a set of three-dimensional digital dancers with movable limbs. The choreographer can then create a series of positions - both for the dancers' bodies and for the stage - which can be linked together into an animated sequence.

Interest in the use of Life Forms is spreading in United Kingdom dance departments. At Surrey Jean Johnson-Jones is carrying out research to see if data generated by Life Forms can be converted into a form that could be used by software that generates Labanotation - dance's equivalent to musical notation.

Life Forms is also on the curriculum in Middlesex University's dance department. One of the events in Britain that really boosted the idea that technology and dance could be soul mates was Digital Dancing. This event, which first took place in autumn 1995, was the brainchild of Terry Braun, film maker and director of the television and multimedia company Illuminations. Braun invited eight choreographers to spend a week at the Lilian Bayliss theatre in North London. The choreographers had access to the latest animation and multimedia software. They also had the chance to collaborate with experienced graphic artists.

Susan Kozel notes this as a turning point in the relationship between computer technology and dance in Britain. It also provided some of the inspiration for her to continue exploring how technology can give a new perspective on the theory of the body. She feels that some members of the dance community are reluctant to explore the use of technology because they feel that dance is about the body, and that technology might take away some of the importance of the body. Kozel takes the opposite view: that technology enhances rather than replaces the body. She also points out that once people begin to talk about the naturalness of dance, they are already in dangerous territory. Is the highly trained body of a ballerina natural? This is the kind of question she takes into the classroom when she lectures to the first-year students on the University of Surrey's dance and culture course.

Kozel includes a discussion of technology in a module on the concepts of culture. She also encourages students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, to explore how they can take technology into their own work.

In the future Kozel would like to see further modules exploring performance and technology. As always, funding for such a course and for the development of research in this area is an issue. Although Kozel believes in demystifying technology by using relatively simple techniques such as CU-See Me, she admits that there is a need for specialised performance spaces, and also for specialised programs - a need that she hopes could be partly satisfied through collaborative projects with organisations such as the Lighthouse in Brighton.

The Lighthouse is an educational charity that provides programming resources and technical back-up to artists and has already begun to collaborate with some choreographers and performance artists. One of the participants in a recent project was Middlesex University.

At Middlesex the interest in dance and technology has developed from a collaboration between the dance department and the university's MA course in digital arts. Tessa Elliott, head of the digital arts course, contributes to an undergraduate module that covers dance and technology. The module gives first-year students on the university's dance BA course a taster of software such as Life Forms and dance notation systems, video techniques and installation work.

This module was devised in 1996 and Elliott says that the main focus of her lectures is to introduce the students to varying forms of human computer interaction. One way she has gone about this is to involve the dance students in some of the installations developed in her own department.

One of this year's installations called We3, and developed as a collaboration between a number of lecturers, digital arts MA students and dance students, uses a video camera to capture the movement of a performer or performers. These images are played back on to a display after the performer has stopped moving. The next performer to enter the space is then expected to match the first performer's movements. Once again a digital trace of their movements is made, ready for the computer to trigger its playback as the next participant begins to move. After several iterations of this cycle the movement sequence is transformed - considerably, says Elliott. She adds that this visual form of Chinese whispers explores the interaction between performer and computer, and that pieces like We3 have a live element rather than merely relying on certain movements triggering predictable events - a more widely used approach to computer-performer interaction.

Since the beginning of the 1990s Elliott has been working with Jonathan Jones-Morris on performance spaces that link moving bodies with computer programs. Much of their work has explored ways of moving away from the limitations of the keyboard, mouse and screen.

This is an area that Elliott tries to convey to the dance students at Middlesex University, through lectures that address the issues of reaction and interaction. Dance students bitten by the computer bug may consider pursuing their interest on the MA digital arts course, which will provide them with the vital technical skills and know-how.

The University of Surrey and Middlesex University are two institutions where dance and technology is part of the curriculum. But for students in more traditional dance departments there are still opportunities to explore computer contact. Terry Braun, for instance, hopes to run two weeks of Digital Dancing during this autumn's Dance Umbrella event in London.

Watch Illuminations' web site (www.illumin.co.uk) for information.

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