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New Media and Information Technologies and Dance Education

Scott deLahunta

Future Moves, Theater Lantaren/Venster, Rotterdam
23 September 1996

[SLIDE 1] Firstly, I would like to thank Klazien and Dick for inviting me to speak here. It has given me the opportunity to pull together many of my thoughts in this area. The title of my talk today is not "multivalent bodies, disrupted institutions and fracturing pedagogies" . [SLIDE 2] It is "New Media and Information Technologies and Dance Education". I think this title does the job better because I hope what I have to say will seem very straightforward and practical and not too theoretical or academic.

I would like to say at the outset that I am not a die-hard proponent of the connection between new technologies and dance. I am not here to expound upon the merits of virtual studios, smart theaters, digital bodies or internet dance collaborations. In a way, I am interested in the two separate phenomena - computer and communication technology on the one hand - and dance on the other and the fact that they seem to be coming together in my life is a bit of a surprise.

I began working with computers in 1984 as a way of making a living while I was dancing in Boston and New York City and I became fascinated by the implications of the computer as a 'tool which shapes us as we shape it' to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan. In 1990, I was studying for a Masters Degree at New York University and began to use the Internet for research purposes. Now, I spend time every day sending and receiving email. I also use the telephone, fax, occasionally write letters and have plenty of face-to-face meetings. The Internet has not replaced these other forms of communication, but it offers another choice which adds depth to our expressive range by providing a different medium through which to communicate.

This brings me to the first point I would like to speak about. [SLIDE 3] What distinquishes the technology we are talking about here, in particular what makes this technology 'new'? In 1845, Samuel Morse's telegraph successfully linked Washington and Baltimore in the United States with nearly instantaneous electrical communication. This is over one-hundred years ago - email, today, is also 'nearly instantaneous' communication. In fact, occasionally one's email packet can get stretched out and lost somewhere between satellites and might even show up several hours later. So, being nearly instantaneous communication does not make email 'new'. There is a qualitative difference which does make email 'new' - this is the fact that it is digital information. I will talk a little more about this in a moment.

Using technology in connection with performance is not 'new' either. As Western theater has developed it always made use of the latest technology available during the period. For example:

Realising that there is nothing new about technology being used in performance might remind us not to forget what has gone before in the rush to the 'new'. [SLIDE 4]

So, what is really 'new' about new technologies because, as I mentioned, there is this qualitative difference between the telegraph and email. The primary characteristic being that email is digital information. [SLIDE 5] Being Digital is the title of a new book by Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT's Media Laboratory. It begins with a reflection upon the difference between bits and atoms. A bottle of Evian water is made up of atoms while bits are the basic elements of digitized information. The modern computer bit has been around since the late 1940s, but the last 15 years has seen a remarkable growth in the industry spurred on by the personal computer. With recent technological developments in increased processing speed and enhanced data compression, it has become possible to render more and more types of information into computer bits or digitized information. And this digitized information may be sent via email anywhere to be independently reconstituted as a perfect copy at the other end. [SLIDE 6]

Now, I don't want to get sidetracked, because there are many things to say about Being Digital. However, I want to try and make one observation about how this 'new' aspect of technology may be having an effect on how we operate as social beings. Walter Benjamin wrote in his seminal essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", that reproduction technologies developed hand in hand with industrialization and the increased massification of human society. Mass culture began to take shape leading to mass media. We still live now with mass media, but the fusion of computers and communications is going to change this.

Firstly, independent reconstitution of information means that the mass media will soon convert from a broadcasting way of conducting business to narrowcasting, to servicing the individual's needs more. Here is a quote from the website for VPRO (which is a Dutch National Broadcasting Company):

In the near future a viewer will no longer wait for programs to be offered to him at a preset time. He selects information at any given moment and also its content and presentation format. Whether this results in Miss Universe Competion participation, camera viewpoint selection, or the choice of a movie plot no one knows exactly.

This is narrowcasting.

Secondly, the copy or reproduction in the digital age, as compared to the industrial age, is no longer a material reproduction. It is only information, or data which can be used to create the perfect copy which is, in fact, an original by virtue of the fact that there is no degeneration of the material object. There is no possibility for a loss of value in material terms. Now I am not going get into the tremendous battle going on over copyright and other forms of control over one's original work. It's difficult to argue against an artist being compensated for work he or she has done. However, this time will come to an end - as John Perry Barlow says "Copyright is dead - the internet has killed it. Now an artist will make a living from the art rather than the artifact."

Well, okay -- I don't fully agree with what Barlow is saying here, because object making is going to survive - albeit in some other form. What I am trying to do is to indicate some of what makes these 'new' technologies unique for our time and to point towards some of the issues which we, as dance educators, should be discussing with our students. Walter Benjamin's essay lays out an epistemological basis for our relationship with producing art - and this basis is shifting. I grant that dance making is not object making, but we do tend to share the same ideas regarding ownership, originality and authenticity. There is, of course, the ephemerality of dance but I think the developments of the marketplace for dance especially in the last 15 years shows that we are clearly, practically speaking, a production based arts genre.

These two characteristics of Being Digital, independent reconstitution and the perfect copy, will have a profound effect in disrupting certain assumptions we may have inherited as artists of the 20th century, and as we move into the 21st century we should be thinking about what these effects might be, in particular for our students.

The second point I would like to consider [SLIDE 7] is technology's relationship to dance as a tool, but bearing in mind that this cannot be assumed as a neutral or one way relationship. For example, one can use digital technologies as a 'better' system for recording and preserving dance. Firstly, digital recordings will not decay and secondly, you can use Motion Capture (which you may hear more about later today) which is a technology using computers, software and video to record movement and make it available in three dimensions on the computer screen. This means you can make a record of a dance which can then be watched and learned from any direction desired. This recording could then be linked with a dance notation system such as Labanotation. I think you may see something like this when you look at the work of Jacqueline and Jim from Bedford Interactive which is coming up later.

You can use technology as a choreographic device. The obvious example is the software Merce Cunningham [SLIDE 8] has been using for the last five to six years called Lifeforms, a software program for creating, storing and editing movement which Cunningham predicted in 1968.

The feedback from both Cunningham and others who have worked with him or interviewed him about his work with Lifeforms reveals the same thing. Lifeforms allows Merce to see something on the computer that he would never have seen otherwise. In an interview he says this about Lifeforms: [SLIDE 9]

My main interest is, as always, in discovery. With the figure, called the Sequence Editor, one can make up movements, put them in the memory, eventually have a phrase of movement. This can be examined from any angle, including overhead, certainly a boon for working with dance on camera. Furthermore, it presents possibilities which were always there, as with photos which catch a figure in a shape our eye had never seen.

Cunningham has been working with Thecla Schiphorst on the programming and design of LifeForms. She is here in the audience - and will speak tomorrow I believe, so I won't say much else about this program. However, I hope she will speak a bit about the possibilities for LifeForms to be connected to Motion Capture technology. Then one would have the capability to record a previously existing dance, convert it to the Lifeforms program and then edit it. At present, one must make up the sequences using the program first rather than going into the studio first. For those concerned with the disappearance of the body into technology, this development may seem like a positive step.

There is another 'tool' application for digital technology which is in the realm of the analysis of movement. This has applications for dance and sports training in terms of working out more efficient ways to perform. I was recently sent a copy of a thesis from the United States by Citlali Lopez-Ortiz who had used motion analyzer software to derive better training strategies for pirouettes.

To expand on the possibility of digital technologies being used as a 'teaching' tool I would like to describe a little the multimedia project of William Forsythe. "Forsythe's CD-ROM" as it is affectionately known is just one example of what is coming in the future - you will see more from Bedford Interactive.

[SLIDE 10] The title of the project is "Improvisation Technologies: Self Meant to Govern", and on the website where I got these images it is referred to as: Digital Dance Learning Equipment. What this multimedia program consists of are rehearsal and performance videotape excerpts from Forsythe's last ten years at the Frankfurt Ballet and includes new videotape of him explaining and demonstrating his theories and systems of movement. [SLIDE 11] One can click on T for theory to hear and see Forsythe's explanations which are enhanced via computer animation, on R to see a rehearsal where the idea is being worked with, and/ or on P to see the same thing happening on stage in the context of a performance. For the performance, you will have four camera angles to choose from. This is a multimedia and hypertextual program which allows the viewer/ student to navigate fluidly from one bit of information to the next. Susan Kozel (who is also here in the audience and will speak later) writes in a review of the program:

I am amazed at how well his choreography adapted to this format. Instead of seeming shattered by the process of clicking back and forth, this imbued the piece with a sense of urgency - as if the choreography depended on me to play itself out and to show itself off to the best advantage.

I agree, this program is a remarkable storehouse of information which fits very well to Forsythe's aesthetic, much in the way that Lifeforms fits very closely to Cunningham's aesthetic. A question Susan Kozel asks in her review is whether other choreographer's work would translate as effectively into this format. At a symposium we organised in June, the same sort of question was raised in a reference to Lifeforms - how would a Butoh dancer relate to using such a program. These are useful questions that do suggest issues which should be considered in relationship to the technology.

My third point is to consider [SLIDE 12] Technology as a creative medium. I will refer here to the work of Paul Sermon, a visual installation artist who has been making telematic artworks such as "Telematic Dreaming" and "Telematic Vision". [SLIDE 13] In each, a video camera and playback connection is set up between two remote sites so that individuals in each site can interact with each other. If you can imagine sitting on a couch or lying on a bed and looking at a monitor which shows you and someone else beside you at the same time. This other person is not 'really' there, but is in the 'virtual' space in which you both exist at this time. Whatever gestures or attempts to communicate you make are instantly received and responded to by this 'virtual' partner.

Susan Kozel took part as a 'performer' in "Telematic Dreaming", and she told me that over time, the sorts of emotional experiences she would have in these interactions took on the full force of 'real' interactions, made even more powerful by the simultaneous realization that the other person was not actually there. (I hope I've interpretted her comments accurately).

There is rich territory to be explored here. Closely related to experiments with 'Virtual Reality' or 'Immersive' computer games and environments - the achievement of the human dimension in Paul's work seems to make it unique at this point in time. However, mediated human-to-human interaction is being seriously explored in these other forms, including the Internet. There is big money and commercial interest involved - and one of the places they are turning to for information is the theater. In 1991, Brenda Laurel published Computers as Theater, in an attempt to get the computer industry to reconsider the science dominated approach to the design of human-computer interaction and to look to the arts, and in particular dramatic theory for new and more human oriented solutions.

Now that we are on the topic of interactivity -- there is another growing area of research and development. This is the area of interactive devices on stage which give the dancer or performer control of other components of the performance. Troika Ranch is a dance company based in New York City working with this idea. [SLIDE 14] They have been doing a residency at STEIM in Amsterdam and came to the School for New Dance Development to give a lecture demonstration last Friday I think they may be here today. I'm quoting from some material they gave me:

By allowing the movement or vocalizations of a dancer to control music synthesizers, video imagery, or the theatrical lighting, we hope to empower that performer, to make them larger than life and to expand their expressive abilities beyond the confines of their physical body.

This is a good example of Being Digital. The sensors which are built into their costumes pick up information from the dancer's movements and record this information in bits which can be reconstituted in the form of control of video, sound, lights or robotic instruments on stage.

The difficulty with this work - which Troika Ranch readily acknowledges - is how to move beyond the 'control' aspect of the technology - so that the 'one to one' connection of the movement signal to the visual or sonic effect does not become obvious or take away from the metaphoric potentiality of the relationship. Someone made the point at the lecture demonstration that Cunningham and Cage broke the chain which had connected music and dance and wondered if this 'new' technology could be seen as retrogressive. As I mentioned earlier, I do think that it's important to be aware of the historical precedents which have been set. In my opinion though, Troika Ranch's work is not retrogressive and they seem to go about it with a very clear awareness of the problems needing to be solved. Besides, Walter Benjamin suggested that works of art sometimes create a desire which can only be satisfied later, and he gives the example of the flipbooks which came out before film. My question is - are we seeing the equivalent to the 'flipbook' here in some form?

I'm coming to the point where I should start to wrap up this talk - but would like to mention a couple of other examples of work. One is an on-going project being devised by a Norwegian choreographer, Amanda Steggell. She refers to her work as "Maggie's Love-Bytes" and has a website which advertises current on-line performances and rehearsals. [SLIDE 15] When Maggie puts on an on-line performance it is done on the Internet using free video conferencing software. In one performance, they invited audience members from around the world to join in the performance to be projected in real-time on the wall behind the dancers. A live audience was there to witness the piece which included these projections. It's a little complicated to explain - but the whole project is very much in synch with the current popular mood of the internet - that it's a new utopian and democratic space where anything can happen. And, indeed, one needs to spend very little to have access to Maggie's performances even though your images may be barely readable - proving that access to real-time global video conferencing has finally moved out of the domain of the corporate and government broadcast organisations.

While I think it is important to maintain a critical perspective on what 'new technology' and dance can accomplish - it also seems important to enjoy some of the wilder possibilities that people are imagining for it. For the future has some interesting things in store for us. It is predicted that by the year 2018, the projection of three dimensional holographs via telephone lines will be happening. Obviously, the holographic actor or dancer is not far behind.

And let's not forget [SLIDE 16] the new languages and metaphors of the cyborg and cyberbody and certain artists, such as Stelarc (who was here last week), who perceive of the body as rapidly becoming a host zone only. A site poised for radical redesign and alterations, for invasions and colonizations by robots and computer chips.

In my opinion, we will see in the dancing body a resistance to the technology body in the form Stelarc envisions. In looking at the modern dance world in Europe and the US at the turn of this century, historian Hillel Schwartz observes a kinaesthetic which had originated as a critique of what the industrial machine was doing to the body. I think this form of critique may have already arrived in the kinaesthetic of this century based upon the work of Mabel Todd, who wrote "The Thinking Body" in 1932 (AT, Feldenkrais, Ideokinesis, Release). What better way to keep the body together when 'new technologies' threaten to capture and disembody us by relying on anatomical and physiological metaphors (like the skeleton) for ways of knowing ourselves and our movements.

It is interesting to consider what new developments in dance technique might happen, and what will be the next kinaesthetic for the information age? I have a feeling that we will see an increased emphasis in dance technique towards the training of a more articulate and independently creative dancer, in response to new ideas about movement drawn from the information offered by visualising programs such as Lifeforms, feedback from motion capture analysis and a radical reordering of the senses due to an increase in telematic or virtual interactions. I certainly do NOT see the disappearance of the dancing body.

In practical terms, what might all of this mean for Dance Education?

[SLIDE 17]

Firstly, there is, at the moment, a problem with money and access, but this is working itself out. Generally speaking, more of this stuff is going to be around and it's going to get cheaper. There will be more opportunities to collaborate with media and information technology organisations and institutions, both profit and non-profit. There are also an increasing number of independent artists making work in this area who will be able to provide workshops and master classes.

In terms of the 'education' part of dance education -

Digital tools and mediums for dance are decidely 'works-in-progress'. However, the examples I've mentioned here have been through many beta testing stages and are beginning to have a real impact on the dance landscape.

What I feel is most important is to provide dance students at least some access to and understanding of these new tools and mediums, so they can grasp and experience first hand the cultural transformations and paradigm shifts connected to them. The arts have always functioned as the place where fundamental societal changes are wrestled with, and dance education should serve to augment this.

Arts education generally cannot afford to continue to see itself as providing a specialist form of training. There are no more specialist niches out there - we must learn to educate in ways now which acknowledge that society is increasingly multiplex, interdisciplinary and changing all the time. Aesthetics, politics and economics overlap in a confusing array of signals. Students will need help in determining how to make appropriate choices and to think for themselves. They should be given more responsibility for their own learning - something which multimedia, narrowcasting and internet teaching tools are poised to help us with.

While I may have said at the beginning of this paper that I am not a die-hard proponent of the connections between dance AND new technology - it's obvious that I do feel there are things going on which dance education should be paying attention to - in fact, these things would be impossible to ignore for much longer anyway.

and I'll stop there.

[SLIDE 18]


Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". In Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books. 1962. pp. 217-251.

Kozel, Susan. "Reshaping Space: Focusing Time". In Dance Theatre Journal. 12:2. Autumn, 1995. pp. 3-7.

Laurel, Brenda. Computers as Theatre. New York: Addison-Wesley. 1991.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (new edition with Introduction by Lewis Lapham). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1994.

Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1995.

Schwartz, Hillel. "Torque: The New Kinaesthetic of the Twentieth Century". In Incorporations. New York: Zone. 1992. pp. 71-126.

URLs (these links may NOT be up-to-date)

Merce Cunningham - http://www.merce.org

William Forsythe (at ZKM / The Center for Art and Media Technology Karlsruhe) - http://www.zkm.de/projects/bildmedien/improvisation.en.html

Paul Sermon (at ZKM / The Center for Art and Media Technology Karlsruhe) - http://www.zkm.de/projects/bildmedien/sermon.en.html

Troika Ranch - http://www.troikaranch.org/

Amanda Steggell - http://www.notam.uio.no/~amandajs/

Stelarc - http://www.merlin.com.au/stelarc/

Dancing on a Line - http://www.danceonline.com/

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