How science is getting its groove

How science is getting its groove

In the eyes of scientists, dance has never been so chic. These days, the two disciplines are chatting about the perception of movement, bodily memory, or the cognitive processes underlying the creation of choreography and improvisation. And then there’s “Dance your PhD”.

It’s an initiative by biologist and journalist John Bohannon that challenges scientists to use dance instead of Powerpoint to explain their research. His own contribution has become a TED Talks hit and this year’s prize is an emerging scientist’s dream: $1,000 cash, recognition from Science magazine and geek fame online.

But behind the gimmicks there’s plenty of evidence that the scientific community is taking dance seriously. This year’s Dublin Dance Festival is hosting a symposium, Dancing with Fire, that will reveal some of the most recent innovative interactions between dance and technology. Austrian artist Klaus Obermaier is the keynote speaker and his work Apparition is part of the festival performance programme.

“When I began presenting performances with technology, the first question in the post-performance talks used to be ‘Isn’t this technology limiting you as a performer?’ My response was always to say it was the opposite,” he says. “It was offering us much more possibilities.”

It sums up the tension between dance and technology. Is the impulsive live performing body straitjacketed or liberated by formalised digital conventions? The answer, not surprisingly, is that it depends on the dance. Early collaborations tended to fetishise the technology. Not only were dancers in a technological cage – they could only dance where the technician dictated – but there was an onus to emphasise the collaboration onstage. Computers cost money so if a dancer was triggering a sound or lighting change, the creators wanted to be sure that the audience saw so.

“That is the real issue,” say Obermaier. “There has always been a tendency to ‘prove’ the technology by having a clear correlation between the dancers and the technology. But that makes boring art. Imagine if I put two dancers onstage and instructed one to follow the other? How dull would that be?”

In Apparition, the technology is an equal performer onstage. “I have no hierarchy between the dance, music, lighting or digital effects. For me each is an equal.” That remains the Holy Grail for collaborators: to coalesce all the elements into a democratic but coherent whole.

“The technology is most successful when it’s almost invisible,” says Néill O’Dwyer, a visual artist who is also speaking at the Dancing with Fire symposium. “There needs to be a certain amount of autonomy given to the computer system so it can react to the live performer.” He is completing a PhD through the Arts Technology Research Lab at Trinity College Dublin, which is co-hosting the symposium, and his research has involved collaborating with dancers Cindy Cummings and Regan O’Brien. “It has been great having Cindy involved, because she has worked in this area before, so we speak the same language,” he says.

Cummings, who has performed with interactive technology in Ireland and the US since 1989, represents a growing number of dancers who defy the guinea-pig model. Throughout the world, dance artists are gaining intellectual kudos for their kinaesthetic knowledge, or muscle sense.

French choreographer Kitsou Dubois has worked with French Aerospace to develop movement protocols for astronauts moving in zero gravity. In the US, choreographer Susan Marshall was co-opted by engineering professor Naomi Leonard to explore how an individual moves in response to close neighbours, as part of her research into the dynamics of schools of fish and flocks of birds. Elsewhere, there is scarcely any university that doesn’t have some sort of cognitive research into how we view or feel dance.

Falling technological costs mean that these collaborations can emerge anywhere. “There is a democratisation of technology, which is great,” says Obermaier. “I worked with a group of students whose touring show centred around a €10 webcam.”

Other technology is working its way on stage. “Look at the Kinect for Xbox. That was made for a gaming community, but now its being used extensively in the arts sector.”

Between completing his masters and beginning his doctorate, O’Dwyer sustained his research with little more than a decent PC, motion-tracking camera and a few stage lights. “It wasn’t easy, but with basic technology it was possible to do a lot.”

With the democratisation of technology also comes demystification and less attention focused on the superficial effects. “Apparition is eight years old,” say Obermaier. “Some people can’t believe that because they think it looks so up-to-date. In the end, technology is one thing, you still have to make a good piece out of it.”