Improvising Choreography with Digital Technologies

Contemporary dance has changed radically over recent years with the introduction of digital media and technology. Traditionally contemporary dance is based heavily on improvisation in choreography to develop starting points. My proposal is to research the choreographic process of improvisation in creating a contemporary dance when using interactive digital technologies, specifically video and motion sensors. This will involve exploring the relationship between dance, the dancers, the choreographer and the digital medium in order to investigate the challenges of improvising using digital technologies that interact with the dancer. What are the challenges, benefits and implications of this?

Digital technology has presented an opportunity for choreographers and dancers to explore different ways in developing starting points, the question then arises as to how much the digital technology influences the improvisation? Does it drive certain actions inhibiting improvisation or can it help create a truly unique piece? Do choreographers themselves have to develop their own abilities to develop digital media in order to achieve their desired outcome, or is the use of prepared media a constraint?

In my paper I will present a critique on current improvisation techniques used by a variety of choreographers and their methods for using a digital element in their dance, this will include an evaluation of their aims and objectives. Is the digital a peripheral to complement the dance where it enhances the narrative, or is the dance complementary to the digital?

It can be argued that the notions of space, time and the body are all challenged by digital technologies. Chunky Move’s “Mortal Engine”1 tested this idea using video projections of abstract imagery that respond to the dancers movements. My research will include exploring Chunky Move’s approach to developing their choreography for “Mortal Engine”. Did the digital technology come first driving improvisation or was it a complementary process where both the choreography and the digital technology were explored together?

Troika Ranch’s goal is to unify the digital and corporeal elements of their works into a unified piece. I aim to identify their choreographic processes including the tools they use such as Isadora and how they devise their transition from conception to reality. For example the dance piece “loopdiver”2 began with a simple idea, to explore the concept of loops, as Troika Ranch said, loops are “…a structure pervasive in culture since the popularization of the computer” (Troikaranch.org, n.d.)

They explain their approach: “We began by creating a special tool in Mark Coniglio’s Isadora software that allowed us to compose highly complex looping structures and impose them on any digitally recorded material, including (but not limited to) digital video files and audio files.”

The result was a 5 minute unedited performance that was transformed into a 60-minute piece. What I found interesting was how Troika Ranch compared the digital to the corporeal.

“The digital materials (in this case, the music) maintain the absolute precision and perfection of the computer, while the learned choreography is necessarily imperfect due to human interpretation. When placed together on stage, we see the performers in a constant struggle to adapt to an externally imposed machine rhythm.”

I aim to answer the question, is it possible to find a balance between perfection and imperfection in which both elements are complementary to each other?

“loopdiver” is just one of many different ways in which technology has been used as a process in choreography. I want to look in detail at what was constructed in the 5 minutes of choreography; were the dancers aware that the movement would be manipulated and as a consequence did this limit or change their approach to improvisation?

Isadora is digital media software created for interactive design and control of live performances and installations, which began as a project, by Mark Coniglio in 1998, a co-director of Troika Ranch with choreographer Dawn Stoppiello. It has been widely adopted by dance companies and choreographers but has also extended out to commercial projects such as Vjing, which takes place at events such as concerts, nightclubs and music festivals.

I will be investigating more into Mark’s approach to programming for digital technologies used in dance. It is widely accepted that programming is based on having clear goals in mind, is there a conflict between programming and choreography and what issues can arise from this? If so, how have other artists and choreographers tackled this issue?

In dialogue with Scott deLahunta3, Mark says;

“Having a goal that is too specific can be detrimental to the process of making a dance … I found myself exploring much more organic, open-ended approaches to art making. Being involved in dance in particular, which relies on improvisation as a primary source of generating material, has profoundly influenced my way of working.

Now, my approach is a much more, try everything and follow your nose. By this I mean, try not to preconceive as much, make lots of stuff and follow through with the material that seems interesting and let the material begin to tell you what it is about. … a kind of ‘goalless’ coding. … I still have a goal, but I don’t often plan out the algorithms. I simply write towards my goal, improvising my approach to solving the problem” (Sdela.dds.nl, 2002)

Palindrome, based in Nurnberg, Germany, is a performance company utilising the use of new technologies in their performance practice. For Palindrome, media accompanying a performance is not already devised. Instead, the performer has a crucial role in creating the media, so it becomes part of a live performance. They use sensors to track dancers movements, which in turn are recognised as triggers or controls in Eyecon, developed by Frieder Weiss, previously co-director of Palindrome. (Broadhurst, 2009)

The question arises here, if the movement is recognized as a trigger or control then the material to determine the output must have been pre-built in Eyecon, thus eliminating the concept of a fully improvised digital performance. I will explore why certain areas were chosen within the digital space, was that taken with an improvised approach or with careful planning?

Both Isadora and Eyecon are examples of two software programs developed for choreographers, the language and programming style has been simplified so that it is accessible to those who may not necessarily have knowledge of programing languages. Does having an accessible program allow choreographers to test and explore their ideas, giving the opportunity to improvise with the software as well as the choreography? As well as the examples I have quoted above. I will be investigating works by artists part of the choreographic coding labs organized by Motionbank which was “…a four year project organised by The Forsythe Company4 providing a broad context for research into choreographic practice” (Motionbank.org, 2010). I will also continue researching other dance companies that are adopting digital technologies in their performances.

In summary, my aim is to explore the relationship between improvisation and the use of digital technology, specifically focusing around the dynamics between these and the potential impact on the creative process. This will include examining the use of prebuilt software that has been developed for choreographers as opposed to software specifically built by collaborators during the creative process and the effect of both.


1 Mortal Engine first performed 14/01/2008, choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek.

2 loopdiver first performed 2009, choreographed by Dawn Stoppiello.

3 Scott deLahunta is currently director of R-Research for Random Dance.

4 The Forsythe Company is a dance company founded in 2005 by William Forsythe.


Bibliography

Broadhurst, S. (2009). Digital practices. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Broadhurst, S. and Machon, J. (2006). Performance and technology. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Choreographiccoding.org, (2013). Choreographic Coding Labs. [online] Available at: http://choreographiccoding.org/ [Accessed 2 Jan. 2015].

Digicult.it, (n.d.). Mark Coniglio: Building Blocks Isadora. [online] Available at: http://www.digicult.it/digimag/issue-026/mark-coniglio-building-blocks-isadora/ [Accessed 28 Dec. 2014].

Farley, K. (2002). Digital Dance Theatre: The Marriage of Computers, Choreography and Techno/Human Reactivity. Body, Space and Technology, [online] 3(1). Available at: http://people.brunel.ac.uk/bst/vol0301/index.html [Accessed 8 Jan. 2015].

Gündüz, Z. (2012). Digital dance: (dis)entangling human and technology. Ph.D. FGw: Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA).

Isadoraworkshops.com, (n.d.). Isadora software training workshops. [online] Available at: http://www.isadoraworkshops.com [Accessed 26 Dec. 2014].

Motionbank.org, (2010). About | MOTION BANK. [online] Available at: http://motionbank.org/en/content/about [Accessed 2 Jan. 2015].

Sdela.dds.nl, (2002). Software for Dancers: The Users Guide. [online] Available at: http://www.sdela.dds.nl/sfd/isadora.html [Accessed 28 Dec. 2014].

The Creators Project, (2013). Motion Bank Creates An Archive Of Dancer’s Movements. [online] Available at: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/blog/motion-bank-creates-an-archive-of- dancers-movements [Accessed 2 Jan. 2015].

Troikaranch.org, (n.d.). About loopdiver. [online] Available at: http://www.troikaranch.org/loopdiver.html [Accessed 11 Dec. 2014].


Proposed Further Reading

Albright, A. and Gere, D. (2003). Taken by surprise. Middletown (Conn.): Wesleyan University Press.

Birringer, J. (1998). Media and performance: Along the border. Maryland, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Burrows, J. (2010). A Choreographer’s Handbook. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Collins, J. and Nisbet, A. (2010). Theatre and performance design. London: Routledge.

Forsythe, W., Sulcas, R. and Haffner, N. (2012). Improvisation technologies. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

Portanova, S. (2013). Moving without a Body. MIT Press.

Reynolds, D., & Reason, M. (Eds.). (2012). Kinesthetic empathy in creative and cultural practices. Bristol, England: Intellect.

Tuffnell, M., & Crickmay, C. (1993). Body space image: Notes towards improvisation and performance (2nd ed.). Hampshire, England: Dance Books Ltd.

Tuffnell, M., & Crickmay, C. (2004) A widening field: Journeys in body and imagination. Hampshire, England: Dance Books Ltd.