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Technology and Dance Essay, written Spring 2010

Technology and Dance

It can be said that the hardware of a dance performance consists of the dancing body and its environment. How the body interacts with that environment, and the resulting felt experience for both audience and performer can thus be interpreted as the complementary software. In an age of constant technological advancement, or as I will call it, digital dominance, it is not surprising that the dance world has made some technological upgrades. But what implications does the fusion of dance and technological elements have for those who engage with it, and how will it affect the future of dance as an art form?

During the 2009-2010 school year, the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has been home to performances that have illuminated some possibilities, literally.  

The Department received an American Masterpiece Grant from Dance USA and the National Endowment for the Arts to re-imagine Trisha Browns 1989 work, Astral Convertible (February 2010), in its annual February Dance concert.  Astral Project Director John Toenjes worked with a team of artists to revamp the piece's early interactive set and costumes, designed by Robert Rauschenberg, and its music, composed by John Cage, with 21st century interactive technology. Interactive costume designer Thecla Schiphorst utilized motion-sensing technology to create real-time relationships between movement, sound design and lighting design; this ultimately resulted in a seamlessly integrated performance atmosphere. 

Though she sites Chunky Move's repertory over Brown's as being directly influential, 2010 UIUC Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Candidate Hope Goldman has also delved into the world of motion-sensing technology. Goldman collaborated with her partner, graphic designer Andrew Moffat, to create a solo entitled Form Constant (March 2010) as part of her MFA thesis. In the piece, Moffat's graphics act as a visual extension of Goldman's body, fluidly illustrating the direction and flow of her kinesthetic energy. Goldman wore a costume equipped with motion sensors to facilitate real-time interactions with the graphic elements projected onto the 2cyclorama behind her.

Why technology?

For artists in a field rooted in the physical embodiment of feelings and ideas, a partnership with the intangible would hold no appeal, or so one would think.  Despite the inherently opposite natures of the two forms, dance artists are finding ways to enhance their choreography through the incorporation of technological elements. As these artists are often not well-versed in digital discourse or practice, it is of utmost importance that they employ a team of technical designers who share their artistic vision. The choreographer and designers must then develop a simplified language with which to communicate their ideas. So what draws dance artists to the technological medium, a medium that they often know so little about?

Astral Convertible Project Director John Toenjes suggested that it is human nature to want to experiment with tools and to build things, which has led to an outpouring of technological advancement. Dance artists, like all other humans, get excited when they discover computer interactive technologies and may find themselves wanting to use them in their work, despite a lack of personal experience or expertise.

TOENJES: "I think the purpose of the use of technology in dance performance is exploration. Whether or not a particular piece is successful -- if you're falling back on gimmicks, if it is something that will be useful to you in the future, if it is something you've already seen a lot of, if it's fantastic or if it is trashy -- it is all born out of our natural human inclination to explore."

Though it is a good one, Toenjes' exploration theory is not the only possible explanation for the recent boom in dance performance works that utilize technology. It is also highly possible that the up-and-comers have looked to the success of other tech-savvy groups of dance artists such as Chunky Move and 3Troika Ranch and have taken note. These artists have learned to utilize technology in their favor both to increase their levels of commercial success and to reach a broader audience with their works of art; both can be highly desirable for emerging contemporary and modern dance artists.

Entry Points

Cross-disciplinary projects such as Astral Convertible: Re-imagined and Form Constant employ an increased level of viewer accessibility, and carry with them the potential to drastically grow the audience for dance. In its excessive modes of abstraction, modern dance is often viewed as intimidating or "weird" by audiences that are unfamiliar with the form. As a result, these same viewers tend to project a narrative onto the work in an effort to better understand it.

The notion that modern or contemporary dance projects a single meaning is in conflict with the nature of the form itself; it is the responsibility of the viewer to engage with and interpret the work based on personal perception. But not all audiences attend a performance with the aim of deep intellectual reflection. Rather, these viewers approach live performance as they might approach a bad horror film or an episode of Grey's Anatomy -- expecting to be visually stimulated by beautiful people and emotionally manipulated by the show's accompanying soundtracks.

Though modern and contemporary dance choreography ideally convey meaning and emotion without external production elements, a choreographer may choose to provide accompanying text to his or her audience. This text exists in the form of program notes, and can be used for anything from explaining the technical elements of a piece to blatantly stating choreographic intent. Dance choreography pulled away from the narrative structure of traditional ballets long ago, so why would a 20th century choreographer find the necessity for such an explanation?

Regardless of an audience member's background in viewing dance, exposure to program notes can encourage a type of tunnel vision in perception; the power of suggestion is very strong and can cause a viewer to suppress his or her own interpretations of the work. This is true for inexperienced viewers in particular, as those who are already unsure about the validity of their opinions may cling to the program notes as absolute. In the instance of repeated viewings, however, the provision of program notes can act as a guiding lens through which audience engagement with the work can be deepened.  

Adding a technological layer to a dance eliminates the need for supplementary explanation by establishing a fundamental level of societal relatability. This acts as an immediate entry point for audience members who are less adept at appreciating and analyzing dance, and thus also destroys the need for projected narrative. But does lowering the level of expected audience investment dumb down the dance in its entirety? It depends on the performance.  

Avoiding Gimmickry

Technology can be utilized in dance performance and practice in a multitude of ways; in addition to the use of sensors that allow the live dancers movements to control imagery, sound and a wide variety of special effects, computer-generated images and sound are also often incorporated with live dance performance. Though both methods have the potential to enhancement the work's artistic merit, it is important to consider the purposefulness of the technology in the work. In accordance with the literary technique 4Chekov's gun, choreographer-technician teams must be wary of including unnecessary elements in their collaboration for the sake of added glitz. Such a choice might be regarded as gimmicky and would ultimately depreciate the lasting impact of the work. But gimmicks are not always such a bad thing. 

Most audiences love to see gimmicks used in performance, Astral Project Director Toenjes noted, because they often utilize a one-to-one performer-technology relationship that is easy to decipher. The term gimmick, he added, is too pejorative for what he views as an important part of the dance/technology fusion; he prefers to describe such effects as "simplistic."

TOENJES: "There is no reason to go through the work and frustration of building a technological component for a dance if the audience won't even recognize that there is something technological going on. The audience won't go with you if they don't get it -- if they don't have a sense of wonder in seeing it and experiencing it."

Though he can appreiate simplicity in technological design, Toenjes said that he does not view it as necessary; in reimagining Astral Convertible, he decided to disregard audience accessibility. Interested in the ideas of technological networking and what he calls environmental dance, Toenjes aimed to build a sentient stage environment that would react to several subtle layers of interaction. Motion sensors that interacted with and cued certain lighting looks and graphic elements onstage were built into the dancers' costumes; the stage environment was guided by many rules that were not necessarily perceivable by the dancers, but that were nonetheless affected by and operating on them. Toenjes knew that the experience would not be immediately satisfying for the performer or for the audience because neither party would be able to make direct connections between the technology and the choreography.  He also knew his choices would have repercussions.

TOENJES: "In a sense Form Constant was more successful than Astral because audiences felt that they could connect with it...I know one person who thought Form Constant was the best thing he has seen in our community, technologically speaking. I was striving for something more technologically complex in my work, but it rendered Astral less successful as a theatre piece in the respect that it was less accessible to audiences."

Instantaneous Feedback

The immediacy of audience engagement has become increasingly necessary in a culture that expects maximal return for minimal personal investment. For example, the use of technology in Form Constant allowed Goldman and Moffat to hook their audience early and to take them on a communal journey through cyberspace.  The vibrant colors of Moffat's graphics, when paired with Goldman's large, sweeping movement vocabulary, made it difficult to look away.

MOFFAT: "We wanted viewers to be entranced by [the dance] -- to be sucked in immediately once they realized what they were seeing. We wanted them to be taking it in like it was the first movie that they had ever seen, and to be invigorated by it."

The couple's creative process was also greatly influenced by the instantaneous feedback, or lack thereof, provided by the graphic elements. Moffat benefitted from the graphic medium's immediate visual feedback, as it allowed him to experiment with a wide range of effects with minimal commitment. In Goldman's experience, however, she found herself missing the instantaneous feedback she receives when working with another human body in rehearsal; when interacting with technology, there is a lack of physical energy and resistance for which the performer must compensate. Goldman found it difficult, she said, to imagine the ways in which her movement would immediately affect the graphic elements and also to consider the reverberations of her motion through the fluid design over time. 

Tools and Communication

It is important for the choreographer and the design team to play equal roles in the creative process, engaging in a constant conversation of ideas and feedback. When the two processes exist in isolation, as they did in the instance of Astral Convertible: Re-imagined, it can lead to headaches on both ends.

Dance Artist Kathleen Fisher, former member of the Trisha Brown Company, came to the University of Illinois to teach Brown's preset Astral choreography to a cast of UIUC dancers in the fall of 2009, while the design team started from scratch to build the technological elements; the two sides began the collaboration on a completely uneven playing field. This, combined with the on-again, off-again nature of Fisher's visiting artist residency, made it difficult for the designers to communicate their ideas to her and to shape their work accordingly. The fact that all elements of the piece had to be discussed in terms of the Trisha Brown aesthetic was also a huge form of complication, Toenjes said.

TOENJES: "Kathleen was constantly trying to figure out how the design team's different ideas would filter through her notion of what Trisha would want -- that was always the white elephant in the room."

Throughout the process, the members of the Astral design team relayed their ideas to Fisher in layman's terms so as to promote the deepest level of understanding between parties. For Fisher, Toenjes said, it was always about physically manifesting the ideas or effects that the design team would describe; she was constantly asking what things would look like or sound like when they were actually produced.  It was difficult to communicate those things to Fisher when she was absent, Toenjes continued, because the sound design and lighting were spatial in nature; the sound was produced by towers onstage and would have therefore been difficult to record in a single audio file. Necessary dancer involvement would have also complicated the audio recording process.

As has been established, all of the elements of Astral Convertible: Re-imagined's set design, sound design, and costumes existed as a complicated network of signal and response. In an effort to "stitch the dancers themselves into the virtual fabric of the piece," software designer Mary Pietrowicz created a computer program that recognized the quality of the dancers' movements as detected by the motion sensors in their costumes. This software was linked to the other production elements, which allowed the dancers to directly trigger specific lighting looks and sound cues to occur throughout the piece.  

It is in the best interest of a dancer/choreographer who wishes to incorporate technology into his or her work to include a software writer in the creative process. This collaboration places the creative team in a symbiotic environment by ensuring that the dance and the technological effects will be created in tandem. The work then acquires the potential to incorporate a level of technological flourish or novelty in the interest of innovation and of uniqueness in the dance field, not in the interest of flashiness or commercial success. Working with a software designer also allows the choreographer to create a final product that is specific to his or her artistic vision; pre-written software carries built-in limitations and may generate similar products regardless of operator skill level. Such limitations can prompt frustration for all members of the creative team.

The Future    

To predict the future implications of introducing technology into dance performance, we need only look to other genres of art. Recent box office trends, as charted in the Chicago Tribune on April 9, 2010, show that within the past year, movies that have included 3-D elements have far out-grossed those without; Avatar, Up and Alice in Wonderland each grossed over $150,000,000 by the end of their second weeks in theatres.

In the world of music, auto-tune technology like the German-engineered Melodyne has made it easy for tone-deaf stars to automatically adjust their pitches; live vocals are streamed though software that is exactly tuned to the artist's desired pitches, resulting in a slightly robotic-sounding final sound. Used both in recording and in performance, the software can do anything from subtly correcting a wrong note to drastically increasing vocal range. Though the production of a robotic-sounding product may have been considered a critical flaw in the past, today many stars in the music industry embrace and market this very element. Popularized in 1998 by Cher's "Believe" and revived in the mid-2000s by T-Pain, auto-tune technology has seen incredible growth in popularity; songs such as Britney Spears's "Piece of Me" and Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" have utilized the technology and have reaped widespread success.

But does the use of technology in these examples cheapen the artwork? More importantly, does it render artist talent obsolete? In a big way, the answer is yes. 

Both in film and in music, the addition of technological elements acts as a distractor from the more formative focal points of the art. James Cameron's "Avatar" has been called "'Dances with Wolves' in Space," as it almost completely replicates the plot of 1990's epic western, with the addition of obvious technological flourish.  The movie can be appreciated based on its use of 5CG art alone, save all criteria for high quality acting, directing, et cetera.  In the case of "Avatar," a movie with much to offer in each of those criteria, audience members may be overwhelmed by the computer graphics and may thus only engage with the film on a superficial level. A similar problem exists in the dance world.

Technological effects walk a fine line between enhancing or overpowering dance choreography when they exist in such close quarters; it is easy for audience members to get lost in the "eye candy," or special effects, of a piece and to ultimately disregard the choreography altogether. When a projection is involved, the dancing must be that much stronger, as modern-day audiences are conditioned to gravitate toward backlit computer screens and television monitors. 

So what separates the good from the gimmicky? Moffat had an idea or two.

MOFFAT: "A full art has two beauties, two aesthetics -- the eye candy bit that is accessible to people who aren't in tune with the art, and then there is the more classical, or deeper aesthetic that is more for the people who are versed in that kind of art. I think when you have only one you are subject to criticism -- just eye candy can be considered shallow, gimmicky or superficial; if you have art without any eye candy it is classified as elitist or pretentious. Without both aesthetics you can't bring together those two classifications as a whole. You need both aesthetics to reach the broadest audience."

Moffat spoke of Form Constant as being more ready-made than other works of choreography, and stated that it has a recognizable level of eye candy appeal for audience members who are unwilling to invest in the dance as a whole. He said that he and Goldman believe that what separates the piece from its equally flashy choreographic counterparts is the element of co-dependence that exists between the technological elements and the dancing body.  

Dance for the Small(er) Screen

As 6Web 2.0 culture evolves, so does the potential for dance to exist in cyberspace. Contemporary choreographers such as Misnomer Dance Theatre's Chris Elam have already tapped the web as a viable resource for viewers. Elam uses live streaming on the web to broadcast performance and rehearsal clips, live interviews and other behind-the-scenes footage in an effort to reach a broader audience outside of the traditional proscenium stage. The site's visitors are automatically entered into a chat room that allows them to discuss with one another in real time as they watch videos; should a visitor wish to opt out of the chat, he or she can modify the video to play in full-screen mode. This feature of the site speaks to 7Generation Y's preference for digitally mediated social interaction, and to its members' constant multitasking.  

 Elam said he has two main goals in his re-imagined web usage: to create an online system that allows performing arts organizations to deepen audience engagement, and to redefine the role of the audience member.

ELAM: "In most cases, performing artists interact with their audiences once a year ... For the rest of the year so much of what makes the art meaningful to [the artists] is invisible to the audience -- it is the behind the scenes. If an audience member sees a company perform and is inspired, there aren't a lot of other ways to connect with those performers again."

Elam said he invests in creating meaningful touchpoints throughout the year that allow audience members to play an active role in the company's creative process. These touchpoints range from holding live brainstorming sessions about upcoming works to asking audience members to vote on costume design or title. By doing this, he said, audience members can personally invest in the work and thus foster deeper connections with it.

Elam went on to say that Misnomer Dance Theater receives between 300 and 400 messages a month from a wide range of people, a large proportion of which has never seen the company's work live.  

ELAM: "I can't tell you how often you get feedback. When you have a 3-year-old watching and writing in, or a platoon in Iraq watching your New York season, that is incredible."

By using the Internet as a communicative tool, the company has been able to invite new audiences into the Misnomer domain; it has been able to reach a much broader, more dynamically robust group of people than it would have been able to reach otherwise.

By opening his work to the online community, Elam has also drastically increased his company's potential to solicit funding for live performance and for other necessary means; a viewer may not have the time or money to attend a live performance, but may still wish to donate a few dollars online. With just a few clicks, that is more than possible.

Inherent Differences

Though there are many perks accompanying dance as a virtual entity, watching it in 2-D inherently changes its nature as an art form. In pure documentations of choreography, the videographer uses a stationary shot from a distance to capture all of the action onstage. Unfortunately, this unfaltering perspective can fail to capture the clarity of the dancers' focuses and the detail in the choreography. A more flexible shot would allow the videographer freedom to zoom and to follow the dancers, though it may sacrifice clarity of spatial patterns and the ability to see the relationship of the individual dancing parts to the whole stage atmosphere. 

Video can also be used to manipulate the audience's perspective regarding imperfections in performance. In the movie-musical Chicago, for example, the character Billy Flynn (as portrayed by Richard Gere) performs a tap dance as a parallel to a scene in the courtroom. The shots of the dancing itself are often fragmented, showing only the top or bottom half of Gere's body at once; the cameraman also frequently shoots Gere from behind in silhouette. The camera angles facilitate anonymity in the scene, making it difficult to discern that it is in fact Gere dancing; it would have been simple to include shots of a more experienced dancer in Gere's place. Additionally, the use of video allows for repeated screen takes and editing, both of which contribute to a false sense of perfection in videotaped performance. In live performance, such tricks are impossible.

Live performance capitalizes on the human element of artmaking by holding performers accountable for their imperfections. There exists the constant possibility of disaster -- be it a 8Janet Jackson-esque wardrobe malfunction or an 9interruption at the VMAs from Kanye West -- that keeps audiences engaged and on their toes.             

GOLDMAN: "There is always a new element in live performance.  The Mars Volta plays their songs in a new way in concert, because they think that if people wanted to listen to the CD, they could just do that. I love live performance because there is that raw factor -- there is always that possibility that someone could fall down or play a wrong note.There is a social element, but there is also a channeling of new energy that is felt so viscerally when you attend a live performance. I could never feel that listening to something on a CD or watching a video."

With regard to music, purists like Moffat may disagree.

MOFFAT: "I think the human element sort of poisons the art in an art that is primarily not about the human ... Music, for a lot of people, conveys a story and memories. But for the electronic crowd, for people who can appreciate the instrumental elements, the music is about how the sound is affecting your brain. That is the rawness of the art."

Human Obsolescence

When it comes to dance, an art that is primarily about the human, is a similar type of obsolescence possible? Moffat thought not. He argued that at its core, dance is a format that is not meant to be viewed on a screen,; he added that if screens were around when dance was originally conceived, the art form may have evolved differently.

MOFFAT: "Somebody trying to make dance accessible through other people live through video on a computer is kind of cheap in a way ... Like they are trying to make it the same as live performance, but that isn't the way dance is supposed to be. They are hinting at a way that it could be, but that way would be fundamentally different than what dance is now."

Elam gave the audience a bit more credit.

ELAM: "Watching dance online is definitely a different kind of experience, but it isn't better or worse than watching a live performance ... The live experience of dance is and will always be the core component of a piece of dance choreography. I think when people watch a video online they know it isn't the same as being there in person -- certain energy just doesnt transfer."

Though he recognizes it as an independent genre, Elam said he feels that dance viewed online has its own inherent value if it is presented within an educational context; he said that the Internet gives dance companies opportunities to build community and to add content to their live performances. In Misnomer Dance Theater's Showhearsal series, the company performs live to an audience of about 50, and simultaneously streams the performance live online. As previously mentioned, the online component gives viewers the option to participate in and/or to watch a moderated discussion in real time as they view the performance. The use of a moderator allows viewers to not just consume content but to participate in a guided experience, with the goal of deepening overall audience engagement with the work.

For the same reasons that Goldman cited for loving live performance, it is unlikely that a type of Melodyne, or self-correcting, software would have success in the world of live dance performance. Though it is highly possible to create such software using the motion-sensing technology employed by both Astral Convertible: Re-imagined and by Form Constant, the program would be limited by an inability to produce a true physical dancing body. Unfortunately for impatient Generation Y, dance is an art form with no feasible shortcuts; technologically extracting the dance from the physical body will not improve a dancers ability to negotiate and respond to the pull of gravity in real life. When using the motion-sensing technology, the range of certain digital signals can also restrict a dancer's utilization of true physical space, as it did in Form Constant.

MOFFAT: "The performance had to be within the limitations of the technology on a fundamental level ... The technology had to dictate because the dancing couldnt exist outside of the technology. Because of that, Hope couldn't move faster than a certain speed, or as low to the ground as she wanted to."

Moffat compared the digitalization of dance to the digitalization of visual art, as both are inherently different mediums than their tangible predecessors. These forms of art remove elements of human imperfection, thus creating for themselves a different set of rules and priorities. The merging of the forms of traditional fine art with technological elements creates, in essence, completely new genres of art. So what does that mean for less tech-savvy styles of dance?


As the dance field progresses toward an increased level of technological aptitude, there exists the fear that pure dance, that is, dance without technology, will be rendered less valid or less important in society. 

GOLDMAN: "It is difficult to consider the continuation of technology-incorporated dance works because though they will reach a wider audience, I don't want that new genre to be seen as better than pure dance. I think [technology] has a future [in dance] but I also feel like I want that same level of audience engagement for my work that does not include technology. There is a level of jealousy and sadness that the body alone won't reach that level or won't be as accessible to as many people."

Elam is not quite so fearful.

ELAM: "If the dance part does not play a meaningful role in the dance technology piece, then maybe it is not a dance piece ... As long as there is meaningful dance in the world, I don't think we run the risk of all dance choreographers becoming obsessed with technology, or of this new niche surpassing pure dance."

Elam compared the emerging fusion of live dance and technology to the appearance of "techno" on the music scene; rather than surpassing all other musical genres, the new form splintered into smaller niches within the larger musical community.  It is not about the tools, Elam said, but about the art form in and of itself.

ELAM: "I think it serves an artist to focus on the art they want to make and to use whatever mediums they need to express that clearly...The best way to serve the field is to make strong work, regardless of the tools surrounding it."

By creating fusions of live dance and technology with a form of symbiosis in mind, dance artists have a good chance of doing just that.

In the building of Form Constant, Goldman spoke of a desire to affect and to be affected by the graphics during her performance; this desire was fueled in part by her frustration with the overused projection pasted behind a dance design schema. The collaborators did not want the two parts to be strong enough to stand alone; rather, they wanted the choreography and the graphics to come together to make a newer, greater thing. 

The successful melding of dance and technology in performance must occur with a similar mindset. Like the overlap in a Venn diagram, shared kinesthetic and intellectual constructs from the field of dance and the field of technology will reinforce and enhance one another, resulting in an ultimately deepened experience for both viewer and performer.



Chunky Move is an Australian contemporary dance company whose work has included stage, new-media and installation works. The company premiered Glow in 2007; the piece used a "sophisticated video tracking system" and "interactive video technologies" with Frieder Weiss's interactive system design.

2A cyclorama is a large curtain or wall, often concave, positioned at the back of the stage area.

3Troika Ranch is a New York City based performance group that produces live performances, interactive installations, and digital films, all of which combine traditional aspects of these forms with advanced technologies. The artists mission in producing this wide range of art experiences is to create artwork that best reflects and engages contemporary society.

4Chekhov's gun is the literary technique whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later on. For example, a character may find a mysterious object that eventually becomes crucial to the plot, but at the time the object is found it does not seem to be important.

5CG stands for Computer Graphic.

6The term Web 2.0 is commonly associated with web applications that facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design and collaboration on the World Wide Web.

7Generation Y is a term used to describe those people born in the mid-1980s and later.  Characteristics of the generation vary by region, depending on social and economic conditions, but members are generally marked by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media and digital technologies.

8Super Bowl XXXVIII, which was broadcast live on February 1, 2004 from Houston, Texas on the CBS television network in the United States, was noted for a controversial halftime show in which Janet Jackson's breast, adorned with a nipple shield, was exposed by Justin Timberlake for about half a second, in what was later referred to as a "wardrobe malfunction".

9While Taylor Swift was making her acceptance speech for winning Best Female Video for "You Belong with Me", Kanye West got onto the stage and interrupted her; he took her microphone, saying: "Yo Tay, I'm really happy for you and I'mma let you finish, but Beyonc had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time.", referring to the music video of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)".


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