Unit 9.1: Dance and New Technologies - an Overview of Developments in the 20th Century
Since the beginning of the 20th century, choreographers and dancers in their artistic works have been seeking to engage with the new (media) technologies of their time. At the same time, these developments have repeatedly triggered controversial discussions about the role of the body in dance and in the technological context. The artistic work of the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) in different phases of his life is the basis for this overview of essential topics and developments in the field of dance in relation to new media technologies in the 20th century.
- Merce Cunningham
- Interactive choreography
- Extended tactility
This overview on important developments in dance and new media technologies is based on my PhD thesis DanceLab - Dance and New Technologies. (Evert, 2003) The topic is even more up to date than ever and intensified by the Corona pandemic, which increased the interest of many dancers and choreographers to engage with digital technologies again. Technological devices and applications are much cheaper and faster and easier to access than in the end of the 1990ies, but many discourses around technologies in relation to dance and the moving human body are still quite similar. In the (late) 1990s, the role of the body in relation to new (media) technologies was especially discussed in relation to the fear of the disappearance of the body.
Dance and the “natural” body
Especially in contemporary dance the tension between euphoria about new, body-expanding possibilities through technologies and the fear of the loss of the central instrument in dance - the body – manifested itself. This can be traced back to the phase of the so called Ausdruckstanz and early modern dance which was very influential in Germany and internationally since the beginning of the 20th century. Referring to this important phase in dance history dance was (and often still is) interpretated as an expression of the natural and authentic moving body. One of the most important representatives of this period is Isadora Duncan, who based her idea of dance on motifs such as ancient Greek vase paintings and on movements that were understood as natural, such as the rhythm of breathing or the waves of the sea. Ballet on the other hand (with its outward leg and feet positions and its body discipline) was understood as highly artificial.
In dance, however, as in other contexts such as sports, there is no natural body. Rather, one has to do with a clearly dance-technically formed body, which is trained and developed for this purpose according to respective specific dance techniques. These dance techniques inscribe themselves into the body over years of training and shape and mark it – as it is visible especially in ballet trained dancer’s bodies.
Dance and New Technologies in early 20th century
Already at the beginning of the 20th century, in the newly developing context of modern dance a tension emerged between the artists in favor of the supposedly natural dancing body and those, who felt very strongly drawn to experimenting with the new media and technologies of the time.
Here are a few examples:
- The aesthetics of the romantic ballet of the 19th century was very much influenced by e.g. light-technical innovations such as oil and gas lighting as well as the use of reflectors and filters and the development of flying machines, which shaped the supernatural character of the female characters of the romantic ballet. Together with the point show dance technique that was emerging at the time, the antigrave image of the ballerina first emerged. The ballet La Sylphide is considered the starting point of the romantic ballet, and Marie Taglioni one of its style-defining interpreters.
Edward Gordon Craig’s idea of the Über-Marionette (1908) is related to the concept of the marionette as a perfect body in Heinrich Kleist’s essay Über das Marionettentheater: Following Craig, humans are to imperfect to perform on stage. Thus, until the completion of the Über-Marionette, trained dancer’s bodies are to represent the human body on stage.
Oskar Schlemmer’s space-sculptural costumes of the Triadic ballet also refer to the idea of body mechanization.
- Already in the 19th century the dancing, moving body was an important topic in early photography and film. Towards the end of the 19th century, Loie Fuller for example experimented with a special costume, which consisted of sticks and large lengths of fabric. She projected images and films onto this costume and experimenting with advanced lighting technology of the time.
Throughout his long and outstanding choreographic career, Merce Cunningham (1919 - 2009) was one of the most important pioneers of the use of new technologies in dance and choreography. The medium film - and especially film editing/cutting methods - became a central principle in his work. He also was one of the first choreographers who developed dance pieces for TV, Camera and Video, such as Event for Television, Fractions I and II or Beachbirds for Camera. In his works the moving camera became part of the choreography.
Even more important was his work with chance technics. I suggest to read this method of determining the position of body parts in time and space (= choreography) as a film-like editing technique. His Solo Untitled Solo (1953) is a good example for this approach: In the process of choreographing the piece as a solo for himself he basically segmented the body in parts: He made a paper list with columns for individual body parts or movement phrases and determined the movements for these columns (= body parts) by chance means. He then went back into the studio and tried to transfer these chance movements back on his moving body. This means he had to solve the task of bringing isolated movements and phrases for different parts of the (which sometimes at the same time were meant to go in opposite directions) as a choreography back on his body:
“Then I’d throw two coins to find the order, by chance means. And where it was a phrase, that was what I did. But when it was a single movement, I would throw coins again to see if another movement was done at the same time. Once five different things came up, all separate, and I spent days practicing without the music, to figure out, just to remember: the continuity, what came next, was such a problem. It reordered the whole coordinating system. […] Finally by the end of the summer I was just barely able to present the dance. It absolutely rearranged my idea of what coordination was […]. Listening to the music was strange, trying to know where I should be at certain points in relation to the sounds, and when I was trying to do this complex dance with it, oh, it was impossible [… ] It was physically difficult for me to do that dance, because of the changes, the play of movements against each other, the abruptness of the rhythm, the shifting. […] There were rapid foot things and then all of a sudden hands, and head thrown around […].” (Cunningham, 1991)(p.80-82)
The quote shows the complexity of this approach: Movements were cut together – edited like on a film board, where the different film shots and sequences are placed one after the other. Even for him as a highly trained dancer the ability to coordinate the counterdirections and imbalances was brought to its limits.
Cunningham’s work with chance means as a choreographic compositional technique and his abstract idea of dance as “movement in time and space” (quoted after the TV program Event for Television) (Cunningham, 1977) together with his understanding of dance taking place autonomously and independently from music, was not easy to understand for audiences at that time. Therefore, his pieces in the beginning often were received as abstract and cool/inhuman. A perspective that was reinforced by his work with the computer animation program Life Forms in the early 1990s. Although I would like to suggest this is only an extended form of his film-like choreographic editing technique developed with chance means.
Choreographing with the computer
Life Forms in the beginning was a basic animation software, offered to Merce Cunningham in 1989 to use for feedback for the further development of the software. In the following years he developed some dance pieces based on choreographic material designed with life forms such as CRWDSPCR. The figures animated in the software can perform movements that are not possible with human bodies - like turning limbs or head 360°. Body shapes as images are created in the so called “figure editor”, which then become “key frames” in a “timeline”, which reminds of a film strip. The software can also render transitions between very different key frames and translate them into a smooth animation. Cunningham animated short choreographies and then brought them back into the dance studio. There, the human dancers had to adapt these movement sequences with and on their bodies.
Here again this approach can be understood as film cutting technique. Compared to the example before, this time the transitions between the “key figures” of the animation – like screen shots in the flow of movement transitions - cannot simply be transferred to the body. Instead, the dancers had to be very inventive in order to find ways to perform these cuts with their bodies (like how to stay in the air and resist the law of gravity).
The audience’ and review’s reception of the pieces developed with the assistance of the software polarized again. The choreography was described as staccato like, cool, emotionless, robotic, mechanical. Here again, the concept of dance representing a natural body appears again: The piece as outcome of a choreographic process with the computer seemed unnatural, unhuman - and thus in some critics and viewers evoked the fear of losing the body through technology. (It’s not a surprise that Cunningham later in the 90’s also started to work with Motion Capturing technologies (Biped), which made the choreography look more “fluent” again.)
The Body as Interface
Choreographing the stories of mostly young men who lose themselves in cyberspace, dance pieces in the 1990s, for example, addressed the immersive danger that might be triggered by new technologies (like Birgitta Trommler’s piece Willkommen in der Wirklichkeit, Münster 1991 or Philip Lansdale’s version of La Sylphide, Bielefeld 1999). More interesting though are interactive choreographic projects in dance. Experimental projects to give dancers control over performance parameters such as music, lighting, projections, etc. with the help of interactive stage environments have existed since at least the 1960s.
The term “interaction”, according to Söke Dinkla , is borrowed from the social science theory of action and has been used in computer science since the 1960s to refer to the computer’s ability to output signals based on input from the user without major time delays (Söke, 1997). Accordingly, interactive artistic productions or settings are those in which a computer system reacts in real time to human input, thus creating a kind of cybernetic feedback between inputs and outputs or actions and reactions.
The first interactive project in performing arts and in music took place in the 1950’s and have been inspired by the concept of cybernetics and self-regulating systems (Norbert Wiener). Placed in an electromagnetic field, the body in these artistic works became a component of the system in which every movement effected the system as a whole.
Marshall McLuhan’s anthropomorphic interpretation of technology is another point of reference in these early interactive works. (McLuhan, 1964). Essential to McLuhan’s theories is the idea that electricity - understood as an external nervous system - connects humans in a world-spanning electronic network with geographical distances being suspended. Thus, the body appears to be extended over the entire earth, which therefore implodes into a “global village” where everyone is connected to everyone else. For McLuhan, this world-spanning electronic network simultaneously represents the end of linear thinking, since it takes the form of a field of “internal cross-connections” that are interwoven in a feedback process. The concept of Cage’s and Cunningham’s piece Variations V proves to be almost a model study of these connections:
Merce Cunningham’s and John Cage’s Variations V
Variations V premiered 1965 in the Lincoln Center in New York. It was a cooperation of Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Nam June Paik amongst others. The basic idea of the piece is, that all sounds of the musical score are triggered by the movements of the seven dancers in the moment of the performance.
The stage setting consists of nine antennas. Like motion detectors they react in a certain radius to the proximity of the dancer’s bodies, which by moving interrupt electromagnetic fields and thus, trigger signals. In addition – and not visible to the audience –, photoelectric cells are attached to foot stands of the antennas. Like light barriers, they are activated by shadows falling on them. Furthermore, contact microphone are placed on props (floor mats, artificial plant, towels, chairs, etc.). All these sound signals triggered by the dancers activate recorders and shortwave radios and are controlled and edited at the mixing desk by the musicians, who thus create the actual sound shape.
Thus, this self-influencing system creates a real time composition, a concert, with the dancers working as “sound suppliers”. In 1966 the broadcasting company NDR in Hamburg recorded a TV version of Variations V, which I recommend to watch as an important document of TV and dance history at the same time.
Variations V presents itself as a performance that shows a sensitive field of mutual influences and dependencies, in which the dancers, too, are part of a net of relations. Within this ‘net’ no action remains without effect on the whole system. The dancer’s movements in time and space and their influence on the technical devices of the set trigger sounds, which would not be perceptible without technical amplification. In this sense, Variations V shows the amplifying function of technical devices. As movements activate sound sources beyond the reach of the limbs, technology, in McLuhan’s understanding, showed itself as an extension of the body.
The dancer’s movements in a way connect the performance space with the outside space. Thus, Variations V can be seen as a model of the electronic network or the “global village” on the theater. Contemporary theater critics promised this approach a significant role in a future theater:
“It strikes me, therefore, that Mr. Cage and Mr. Cunningham may have given us a fascinating, if extremely primitive glimpse into an extraordinary theater of the future. This would be a theater in which dance (possibly drama), music, scenery and, certainly, lighting, could be created simultaneously in the process of performance.” (Hughes, 1965)
Troika Ranch: In Plane (1994)
In quite some 1990’s dance productions, various interactive systems have been tested and used. The dance solo In Plane (1994) by the New York group “Troika Ranch” is another example of how a ‘dialogue’ is staged between the technology and the body staged as expanded by the technical components.
The New York based dance-music cooperation Troika Ranch started to work with interactive systems in the late 1980s. They developed the so called “Midi-Dancer”, a full body suit with sensors at joints of the body (elbows, knees, hand wrist, hips). It functions as a wireless motion sensing system, which measures the degree of the flexion of joints, mediated via a transmitter placed under the stomach. As a body instrument it as such enabled the control of stage parameters like video projections, music, light.
As a piece for one dancer In Plane in fact is a duet of the dancer with her own video image, a dialogue with technology, which seems to be reactive or “animated”. The piece seems to demonstrate the dominance of (wo)man over technology. Technology is staged as extension of the body, operated by remote control through the “Midi-Dancer” without no direct touch of the devices. Although technology as body integrated extension seemingly allows the body to control the environment remotely, on a choreographic level the piece also reveals the limited choreographic possibilities of this setting, as the body has to serve the midi-dance suit’s sensors.
The software developed by Mark Coniglio interestingly is named Isadora – and thus refers to Isadora Duncan, who understood dance (as we remember) as expression of the naturalness of the body).
These two choreographic examples from the 1960’s and 1990’s stage the entire body of the dancers as an interface to technology. This again reconnects to 1990’s discourses around technology and the fear of losing the human body in an increasingly technologized world. Especially dance artists tried to position themselves as experts with knowledge on sensory and spatial perception which could be very valuable for these developments. (Hughes, 1965) p.142.
The phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty described the connectedness of the body as a seeing and visible or touching and touchable entity with the world. The body in turn appropriates the world by an intertwined seeing-touching sense of distance and proximity. (Merleau-Ponty, 1986) p.173. Interactive performative setting thus extend the kinesphere (as the space around the body (Rudolf Laban) that reachable with the limbs) beyond the reach of limbs and includes reacting device components.
In an article in Kunstforum international in 1996 Susie Ramsey wrote:
“What is exciting and promising about Virtual Reality in relation to dance is not the helmet paradigm, but rather these are alternative models of reciprocal action within a human-machine interaction that incorporates a broader spectrum of wide and varied bodily ability. Currently, a growing group of international artists and scholars are experimenting with interfaces that are more intuitive and that materially and conceptually engage the whole body.” (Hughes, 1965) p.141.
Here again we can see the recourse to notions of a body expressing itself in dance. The whole body again is understood as an interface. And thus, it is seen as is more sensitive – compared to only wearing a VR helmet on the head or using a computer mouse with the hand:
“[…] there are two concurrent notions of virtual reality, one which aspires towards abandoning our bodies in order to travel through digital space while hooked up to a computer, and another which derives inspiration from physical experience to create a new reality through art. […] For me, the fundamental conception of cyberspace is linked to the moving, fluid body. It is through flesh and not in spite of it that we gain access to the virtual.” (Kozel, 1994) p.37.
Because interactive technologies and devices were considered as extensions of the body and thereby related to a sensuality based on touch and proprioception, media researchers like Derrick de Kerckhove (De Kerckhove, 1996) p.334. also referred to the body knowledge of dancers. Thus, the basis for the development of interfaces which use the whole body, is understood as overcoming the long dominance of the sense of sight and the alienation from the body related to this dominance. In this understanding technology does not lead to a loss of the body, but to a physicality enhanced by technology, which encompasses all senses. Following an anthropological definition of technology as part of the human body, the precondition, though, for this development is, to firstly understand technology as part of the body and to integrate it into the body concept. (De Kerckhove, 1996) p.333
De Kerckhove’s approach is clearly based on a phenomenological background and by this tries to overcome the separation of body and mind. Appropriating of the environment through the eye and the hand thus is seen as a mutual penetration of the body with the world (Merleau-Ponty, 1986) p.308.: By remotely seeing/touching the world, the body connects and intertwines itself with it as its extension. Computer technology and especially interactive systems seem to extend and visibly implement this connectedness: Following de Kerckhove the senses of touch and sight are electrically extended beyond the kinesphere and the actual place of presence. Here again, we are back to McLuhans idea of the externalized electric nervous system, which stimulates the sense of touch and affects the whole body.
In dance the moving bodies is often regarded as experiencing authentically and holistically. That’s possibly why dance artists (as quoted before) as well as media researchers as De Kerckhove especially in the 1990’s referred to this sensual potential of media technology. Like in In Plane the body connected to technical devices functions like a remote control: Reaching beyond the length of the limbs without touching the reacting device directly can be understood as “extended arm”, which triggers effects - touches without touching. As the environment seems to be reactive to the user it seems to communicate. This again supports the anthropomorphized understanding of technology and – thought further – seemingly dissolves the dichotomous distinction between technology and the body.
All examples mentioned are dating back to the 1960’s and 1990’s. Possibly reinforced by the corona pandemic the interest amongst dance makers in experimenting with new technology is back. Here are only a few recent examples of projects in the field of dance and new technologies:
Merle Mischke Klee – going through something
Gibson / Martelli – VR project Dazzle
Nevertheless, it seems as if the fear of losing the body and the “real” world because of the immersive character of digital technologies is still there. This is possibly although or because computer technologies are much more common and integrated in daily live today: The real and the virtual are still seen as contrasting poles, the second threating the first, while the first is regarded as more valuable and authentic. (See for example (Jessen, 2021) p.51.)
- Evert, K. “ DanceLab. Zeitgenössischer Tanz und neue Technologien”. Würzburg. 2003.
- Cunningham, M. “The Dancer and the Dance”. New York/London. 1991.
- Cunningham, M. “Event for Television”. . 1977.
- Söke, D. “Pioniere interaktiver Kunst von 1970 bis heute”. Karlsruhe. 1997.
- McLuhan, M. “Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man”. . 1964.
- Hughes, A. “Dance: Created on Stage. Cunningham Rides Bike for ‘Variations V’”. “New York Times, 24.07.”. 1965.
- Ramsey, S. “Nimm deinen Körper mit. Die Tanzszene und neue Technologien.”. Rötzer, Florian (Hg.): Die Zukunft des Körpers II. Kunstforum international, Band 133. 1996.
- Merleau-Ponty, M. “Die Verflechtung – Der Chiasmus”. Ders.: Das Sichtbare und das Unsichtbare, München. 1986.
- Kozel, S. “Virtual Reality. Choreographing Cyberspace.”. Dance Theatre Journal, Vol 11, No. 2. 1994.
- De Kerckhove, D. “Propriodezeption und Autonomation”. Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH (Hg.): Tasten. Bonn. 1996.
- Jessen, J. “Wiedersehen mit der Wirklichkeit”. Die Zeit, 27.05.. 2021.