The Emerging Collaboration between Contemporary Dance and Technology


Collaboration can be defined as “The action of working with someone to produce something” (Collaboration, 2015). It can be characterised by the sharing of thoughts and ideas in pursuit of achieving a shared outcome. In the context of performance and dance, this paper seeks to examine the practice of collaborative working, specifically in creating contemporary dance, combined with the use of technology and how it has an impact on the conceptual process for a choreographer.

Collaboration is widely recognised in the sciences and arts, many philosophers and scientists have aimed to define collaboration. The psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that “working together productively toward shared goals is a human activity unique and valuable in its contributions to individual and social well-being.” (John-Steiner, 2000, p.xi).

Donna J. Wood and Barbara Gray (1991) listed several definitions of collaboration by various people in an article for the Journal of Applied Behaviour[1]. The general consensus from this was that there is no single definition for collaboration that addresses the following: Who does what, with what means, towards which ends? They aimed to create a revised definition broadening Gray’s own definition for collaboration from her own book[2].

“Collaboration occurs when a group of autonomous stakeholders of a problem domain engage in an interactive process, using shared rules, norms, and structures, to act or decide on issues related to that domain.” (Wood and Gray, 1991, p.145)

Their definition is seen as a process in organisational development, particularly in businesses as they aim to identify aspects of collaboration from a scientific and business point of view. This differs greatly from Grant H. Kester, who said that while collaboration can be defined simply as “to work together”, or “in conjunction with”, a second meaning shadows it; collaboration as betrayal, to “cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force.” In his words he felt “This ambivalence, the semantic slippage between positive and negative connotations, is, I think, fitting… …It seems wiser to openly acknowledge this impurity than to assume that it can somehow be defeated at the level of terminology.” (2011, p.2)

Finding a clear definition for collaboration can get in the way of what it actually aims to do. Kester considers that the definition for collaboration cannot be clearly defined as it is subject to the context in which it takes place, some of which can be negative. Whilst the negative aspect cannot be ignored, in the context of artistic collaboration this is primarily about a shared idea and concept and bringing them to fruition.

Vera John-Steiner et al[3] identified four patterns of partnerships (collaborations). The first pattern was referred to as distributed collaboration, which is where collaboration is widespread, and can take place in formal and informal situations and networks. Generally speaking individuals in these widespread groups have a shared interests and through them they can voluntarily form a lasting partnership.

The second pattern, complementarity collaboration, is based on “complementary expertise, disciplinary knowledge, roles, and temperament.” (John-Steiner, 2000, p.198). In this case it is rather like teamwork in business similar to Wood and Gray’s definition. This can be broken down into the understanding of disciplines and how different disciplines can work together on a shared goal. The remaining two patterns are family collaborations, which is less relevant to this essay, and finally integrative collaboration which is described as:

“…the participants construct a common set of beliefs, or ideology, which sustains them in periods of opposition or insecurity. Integrative partnerships are motivated by the desire to transform existing knowledge, thought styles, or artistic approaches into new visions.” (John-Steiner, 2000, p.203), In other words, working together to create something truly innovative.

As can be seen from my research, there is no simple model or definition of collaborative practice from the scientific and artistic fields. However, it is true to say that whatever definition one chooses, there is a shared understanding that collaboration involves one other or many cooperating to explore and develop ideas and concepts with the aim of creating something unique or innovative.

“Transformative contributions are born from sharing risks and challenging, appropriating, and deepening each partner’s contribution. Individuals in successful partnerships reach beyond their habitual ways of learning, working, and creating. In transforming what they know, they construct creative syntheses.” (John-Steiner, 2000, p.114)

Collaboration in Dance

Various artists and choreographers evidence this theory for the different patterns of collaborative practice. The choreographer George Balanchine was well known for his work with Igor Stravinsky. Their collaborative partnership could be seen as complementarity collaboration as they shared a love for the theatre and classicism. “Stravinsky spoke of a need for dance and music to struggle with one another.” (Joseph, n.d.)

Their work together was indicative of the first time a choreographer went out of his way to let music shine alongside the dance, traditionally Russian ballet was first and foremost about the dance, movement and the score was secondary. Their collaboration was about taking a risk. The choreographer and composer worked in order to complement each other and the synthesis of the two created the final piece.

As Joseph points out, it was the active process of “inventing” (Stravinsky) that exhilarated them more than anything. Balanchine and Stravinsky evidence a balance between a collaboration where the work prioritises process over object production and technical proficiency. While at the time controversial, their works set landmarks in ballet and dance that could only have reached that status through working together.

The costume designer Lez Brotherstein is well known for his long-term collaboration with the choreographer Matthew Bourne, but their work is not a traditional choreographer-designer relationship. They plan every aspect of the story, character and staging before the development of the dance. This in turn means that every element of the dance is integral to the production as a whole. The design inspires the dance as well as the dance inspires the design.

“Matt looks at everything I draw, and one idea spins off to the next. Some of what we come up with is rubbish, and Matt changes his mind at every meeting, which can be frustrating and brilliant. But the whole thing becomes so enmeshed that we can’t remember whose idea is whose.” (Brotherstein interviewed by Mackrell, 2012)

Their working practice relates to John-Steiner’s conclusion for a successful partnership. Bourne and Brotherstein reach beyond their habitual ways of learning, working, and creating. Their partnership can be described as mixture of integrative collaboration and complementarity collaboration. Two different fields have fused together to produce creative syntheses.

Another example of two artists in recognised fields collaborating together is of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Cunningham is considered as one of the most influential choreographers in contemporary dance. He is well known for his long-term collaboration with the composer John Cage.

Cunningham would create his dances by deciding on an arbitrary time structure, then he and Cage would work independently to create sound and movement that would fill in the structure. (Basualdo and Battle, 2012, p.76). This approach is different from the collaborative tradition that Stravinsky and Balanchine, and Bourne and Brotherstein demonstrate.

The first of their work to use the time structure was Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three[4]. This was also Cunningham’s first work using chance operations, where coins were tossed to determine the sequence of parts in the dance. Cunningham said that he “used charts of separated movements for material for each of the four dancers, and let chance operations decide the continuity.” (Brooks, 2004)

Cage set 64 sounds and for each pair of dances, eight sounds were replaced by eight others. They then pieced the dance together at the end. The dance combined ideas that could have been thought as something that shouldn’t go together. However, it was the balance between the process in creating the piece and the resulting outcome of the piece, which created an innovative and successful new work.

I propose the idea for another form of collaboration, a sub-pattern for the third pattern, integrative collaboration, defined by John-Steiner et al. Independent Collaboration, where the participants work independently on a common set of beliefs or ideology. This pattern is reflective of Cunningham and Cage’s collaborative practice.

Collaboration between Dance and Technology

Another example of independent collaboration is demonstrated between Cunningham and the OpenEndedGroup. The OpenEndedGroup currently comprise of two digital artists. Their artworks span a wide range of forms and disciplines, including dance, music, installation, film, and public art. They have also collaborated with Bill T. Jones and Wayne McGregor.

After collaborating on Hand-drawn Spaces[5], an installation for the OpenEndedGroup, Cunningham invited the OpenEndedGroup to collaborate with him on Biped[6]. Hand-drawn Spaces led to the creation of Biped, where the name for the piece was influenced by the technical name for the virtual bodies in Hand-drawn Spaces.

“Cunningham’s method of collaboration is famous for being unusual… …the idea is to expunge all traces of illustration from the three main strands of the dance: the choreography, the music, and the visual décor. No longer was dancing to illustrate the music, or visual décor to illustrate the dancing, and so on. The three strands were to be conceived independently and then united for the first time at dress rehearsal or even opening night.” (Kaiser, n.d.)

Cunningham told the visual artists that Biped was about technology and it would be like flicking through channels on TV. Taking this idea on board, the visual artists built on the projections and virtual choreography they had previously explored with Cunningham in Hand-drawn Spaces. They decided to use a transparent scrim covering the proscenium stage that was filled with projections, behind the scrim the dancers would perform.

The projections consisted of motion-captured movements similar to Hand-drawn Spaces with a much larger variety of virtual anatomies, including variations on the hand-drawn bodies, dot bodies, stick bodies and cubist/chronophotograph bodies they produced.

Biped demonstrates the evolution of Cunningham’s experiments with advancing technology. He previously worked with a program called Life Forms, later called Dance Forms by Credo Interactive to choreograph on the computer. This software rendered 3D models whose joints could be moved. He created movement phrases outside the studio and then tested these phrases with his dancers in the studio. Sometimes the choreography would be impossible to replicate but Cunningham was interested in the dancers responses and what movement choices they performed unexpectedly.

Cunningham gave his collaborators independence in developing their ideas, which were brought together at the end in a unified piece, this demonstrates an example of independent collaboration.

The OpenEndedGroup also collaborated with Wayne McGregor to create Atomos[7]. The piece was conceptualised after McGregor became interested in the idea of uncuttable, indivisible and invisible structures and was heavily influenced by the iconic 80s sci-fi film Blade Runner.

The piece was developed with the help of a computer-based dancing creature known as “Becoming” created in collaboration with the OpenEndedGroup. “Becoming is a live artificially intelligent installation in which an abstract body tries to master all the movements present in an iconic 1980s science-fiction film.” (Drew, 2015).

Becoming started with the creation of the Choreographic Language Agent (CLA). In Wayne McGregor’s practice, the dancers fire ideas off each other during rehearsals. The aim was for the CLA to be part of this process acting as an eleventh man in the studio, giving the dancers new instructions and in turn letting the dancers respond to it, creating a jumping point for further improvisation. This is an example of distributed collaboration, between each of the dancers and the computer.

In response to the CLA, McGregor says “We tried it in draft form in the studio where the dancers had to kind of work with it more programmatically and had more intervention on it and that in some ways slowed down the choreographic process. We wondered whether or not actually having a kind of tool like that in the studio actually was a bit too difficult to work with in terms the energy that I like to create in the studio room.” (McGregor, 2015)

This led to the creation of Becoming, which Drew describes as “Unlike the CLA, Becoming was about autonomy. Downie wanted to make something that was more than a tool, something that could be “used” to get to a particular place you wanted to go. Instead Becoming would be ‘a thing that existed’.”

The process for the CLA evolving into Becoming for Atomos started by taking source material based on the 1980s sci-fi film. The collaborators for Atomos all knew this source material, “So in this case, I had several computers spending a couple of weeks analysing every single shot of that movie. There are 1240 shots in that movie. Once Becoming had built up a barrage about data about this secret movie, it was all there to be called upon at any time.” (Drew, 2015)

McGregor aimed to transform the CLA from a tool into something that was integral to a specific starting point and then develop choreography in collaboration with dancers that was specific to the idea. He credits Becoming as an eleventh dancer, a co-creator of Atomos. It acted in the form of a physical body within the studio as a 65inch 3D screen to give it presence among the dancers. Becoming responded to data by moving “all these very strange limb-like articulations”. (McGregor interviewed by Mackrell, 2013)

Atomos represents the inclusion of technology as part of a process in creating the dance piece. Through an integrative collaboration between McGregor and the OpenEndedGroup, they were able to create Becoming, which acted as a digital participant within a distributed collaboration.


The inclusion of technology has an impact of the creation of a contemporary dance, during the conceptual process and the choreographic process. Traditionally, a choreographer will identify a starting point from which to develop. For Atomos, McGregor took previous experience and ideas and developed them to build collaborative partnerships and include technology as part of a collaborative exercise in improvising choreography.

Biped took a different approach, which is unique to Cunningham’s style. The notion of technology had an impact on the choreography. However, the technology used in the performance itself was developed individually and assembled with the dance at the end completing the piece.

The development of collaborative practices within contemporary dance exhibits some recurring themes. Balanchine and Stravinsky began a revolution taking a risk with traditional ballet through complementarity collaboration in order to put emphasis on both dance and music. When Cunningham and Cage collaborated for “Sixteen Dances…” They took a new approach to collaborative practice, again taking a risk using independent collaboration in which some rules were set beforehand, developed independently and finally pieced together to produce work. Cunningham kept this model throughout his career and collaborations with various artists and designers.

His collaboration with the OpenEndedGroup introduced technology to dance and his work on DanceForms introduced the possibility of collaboration between a dancer and the computer, the dancer responds to the movement created on the computer. McGregor took this idea even further so that the computer automatically generated stimulus based on mathematics, which was introduced to a rehearsal studio environment. This demonstrates an integrative collaboration and the idea of technology embedded into the development of a dance as opposed to a process.

Technology is increasingly being used as part of a process to develop choreography, specifically interactive technologies which can have a presence both during rehearsals and on stage for performances. Choreographers have collaborated with companies and professionals in technical fields to help them build ideas combining technology with dance for work both on stage and in rehearsals. As the current trend of technology changes influencing the way we behave, it also influences choreographic practice.

There is evidence that the role of technology within choreography is changing and that it is being used to explore ways of developing ideas within choreography and improvisation. Technology has been used as a participant within a distributed collaboration as demonstrated by McGregor in creating Atomos.


The collaborative practices and risks taken by Balanchine and Stravinsky and Cunningham and Cage have had a great impact on Contemporary Dance.

Historically choreographers have always collaborated and worked with people with different knowledge and skills in order to develop their ideas. Now they have engaged with technology collaborating with people who are skilled in programming and the use of technology, for example, the OpenEndedGroup had the knowledge and skills to create suitable technology like the CLA.

As, in the world generally, technology advances, which presents opportunity for choreographers themselves to learn and adopt technology in their practice. A recent example would be Isadora[8], digital media software created for interactive design and control of live performances and installations. The language and programming style has been simplified, so that it is accessible to those who may not necessarily have knowledge of programming languages, making it useable to choreographers.

Following this trend it could be seen that technology could take on a complementarity collaborative role within a company, which has been fully, constructed by the choreographer himself or herself.

The question arises, could collaboration between a choreographer and a completely digital presence, which is a risk in itself, have an impact on contemporary dance and influence contemporary dance in general like Balanchine and Cunningham? On the other side could the inclusion of technology run the risk of neglecting an important human element, becoming too introspective, lessening the impact on contemporary dance.

This collaboration could signify a new pattern as evidenced by Cunningham and Cage. As technology rapidly evolves, I believe it will open new creative opportunities and horizons for choreographers and dancers to explore, presenting an exciting and dynamic world to work in.


[1] Article titled ‘Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Collaboration’.

[2] Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems published 1989.

[3] Vera John-Steiner, Michele Minnis, Teresa Meehan, Holbrook Mahn, and Robert Weber.

[4] “Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three” choreographed by Merce Cunningham premiered January 17, 1951 at Bennett Junior College, Millbrook, NY.

[5] Hand-drawn Spaces premiered July 1998 at Electronic Theater, SIGGRAPH, Orlando, Florida.

[6] Biped choreographed by Merce Cunningham premiered April 13, 1999 at Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley.

[7] Atomos choreographed by Wayne McGregor | Random Dance premiered October 9, 2013 at Sadler’s Wells, London.

[8] Isadora began as a project by Mark Coniglio in 1998.


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