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ByYacov Sharir

Can a dancer exceed the boundaries of what is defined as dance as we know it today? By programming or choreographing in virtual environments can anyone be defined as a dancer? Is it possible to design a highly artificially-intelligent puppet/mover (cyberhuman) which is indistinguishable from a human dancer? Can a physical human extend the physical/technical boundaries by interacting with a cyberhuman performing humanly impossible movement ?

The nature of Virtuality

Computerized/Virtual technologies allow us to manipulate, extend, and distort images of the body. These technologies extend and color work in ways not possible in the physical realm or by traditional means. They offer a way to augment and expand work, thus introducing new possibilities creatively, experientially, spatially and interactively.

The VR technology tends to blur disciplinary boundaries by changing the nature of what and how artwork is created, realized, and performed. Because one must create a computerized "world," open to user interactions, the work necessitates a non-linear, open-ended, almost fragmented composition.

The process of creating a work in VR led me to far more questions, and to a great deal of artistic possibilities. In such interactive environments, for instance, which are contingent upon the interaction of others, the notions of creator and audience blur. Is the very nature of art and dance altered by this potential? Just where does the performance occur -- within VR itself, in distributed sites, in cyberspace? Are some participants relegated to being passive audience members and others performers? How does one determine who gets represented in the VR environment? How can this technology be accessible to larger audiences capable of interacting directly with the simulation? When does the multiple cause-and-effects of user participation become mere chaos?

Although the dance is often seen as distinct and direct, the coupling of dance and computer technology provides for rich exploration in the development of digitized dance in a virtual environment. As the dancer/choreographer both in the physical/performance space as well as in the simulated Virtual/Cyberspace, I have experienced physically and spiritually intertwined senses of embodiment and disembodiment, senses that profoundly affect my experience of dance. Additionally, the limitations of performance in restrictive VR gear affected and became creative forces in my choreography, as did the very nature of the technology itself.

In this essay on dance and emergent/interactive technologies, I address this and other issues through two distinctly different art works. I feel I am sharing with my readers the real and profound experiences of conceptualizing, creating, and performing the works. Additionally, I would like to share how the two works have allowed me to participate in a fascinating process of discovery, such as learning how to behave in cyberspace (while surfing in a virtual Environment), relearning how to deal with new experiences such as to how one reestablishes stability in the zero gravity of cyberspace, and lastly how chance operation and arbitrary compositional decisions can be extended in ways not possible in a technologically unmediated world.

"Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies"


"Dancing with the Virtual Dervish Virtual Bodies" is a collaborative project in virtual reality (VR) by visual artist /designer Diane Gromala and myself, choreographer Yacov Sharir. It was funded with a major grant from the Cultural Initiatives Program of the Department of Communications in Canada through a two-year residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada. "Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies" resulted in several dance performances where the dancer and audience members performed and interacted with a virtual environment in real-time. Large-scale video projections of what each participant experienced created another level of VR within the performance space, and further encouraged participation. The opportunities and limitations of the technology were embraced and explored, resulting in new creative strategies and directions for further technological development. The following notes are derived from the journals of the artists.

"Dancing with the Virtual Dervish Virtual Bodies" is among the first VR projects to synthesize immersive and interactive digitized new dance in a performance environment that includes a head-mounted display, data glove, and interactive video projections which enable the audience/participants to interact with the environments and in essence, become co-creators. It explores concepts and experiences of the body on many levels, visually, sonically, and behaviorally and was created to be reminiscent of the body: of skin, of materiality, growth, and decay. This metaphorical representation of an inner body houses all activities in the virtual space, engendering emotional and visceral content and responses.

In order to conceive Dancing with the Virtual Dervish literally and figuratively, a body of enormous scale was created. This body was programmed to remain in continuous motion, slowly undulating in sensuous movements toward decay and reformation. Body organs were texture-mapped or wrapped with typography related to the dervish, as well as with x-rays and abbreviated MRI data of my collaborator, designer Diane Gromala. These organs can be "entered" to reveal other-worldly chambers. The virtual body thus becomes an immersive, nonlinear book, a text to be read, an architecture to be inhabited.

Within the body stands another primary component, another body, videograbs of myself, the dancer, transcribed onto a plane. Thus, I exist both as representations within the virtual environment, and as performer in the physical performance space, connected to the virtual environment through the umbilicus of the head-mounted display (HMD). During performance, I navigate through and dance within the virtual body, blinded to the physical realm by the head-mounted display, experiencing two worlds simultaneously, disembodied. The virtual body I interact with is made available to members of the audience as large video projections in real-time. At other times during the performance, audience members directly interact with the immersive virtual body through the HMD.

"What are the worlds that open to us when we consider the art of choreography in computerized virtual/cyberspace environments? What are the new possibilities to be considered? What are the artistic, intellectual, visceral, and emotional issues which can be addressed using the opportunities afforded by this technology"

As a dancer in two worlds -- (the simulated and the physical) I experience my movements in a new way, with new sensations. Additionally, my dance, my actions, initiate cause-and-effect relationships in all worlds affecting movement-by-movement what happens in the simulated and in the physical realm. Because I can also dance with videograbs of myself in the simulation, I experience a kind of mirror effect. All of these aspects conjoin to create new opportunities for experiencing the artwork, and new ways to consider creating artworks/dances.

When I experience the entrance into a computerized simulated virtual world, I am able to reference or "see" my digitized body within the simulation. Simultaneously, I sense my existence in the physical world. As I target my vision and/or move my hand forward, I am able to navigate through the simulation-birdlike. As my perception accommodates itself to a 3-D illusion, I experience a sense of being in another, additional skin -- I feel immersed. At the same time, I have this sense of heightened anxiety, caused by the doubling of my own body image. The sensation of disembodiment cannot be disconnected from the sensation of embodiment; that is, I feel the physicality, the groundedness of gravity simultaneously with the sense of immersion and altered abilities, such as the ability to "fly" through the simulation.

The larger design problems which emerged during this project were experiential and behavioral - one does not create a linear, repeatable piece. Rather one designs "worlds" of possibilities, a constellation of if-then scenarios based on the users' potential actions and interactions with the simulation and intelligent agents within it. No longer linear, each user will affect the piece in a particular way, probably unrepeatable.

I am asking: "How does this affect the creative process? How would the nature of creating and experiencing the body be altered" What would it be like to inhabit a body within a body with in--? What would it be like to fly within one's own body, a body in constant motion, a body which contains nested levels of other-worldly places which unfold, fractal-like? What new role might a user play in this interactive, immersive piece? Can the user's kinesthetic experience be considered dance?

In "Dancing with the Virtual Dervish/Virtual Bodies", certain areas responded to motion detection, or touch. When users approached and "touched" a certain wall of text, (instead of skin) for example, they might "fly" into an inner, otherworldly chamber. Depending on how they approached the text, however, they may also find that it began to swarm in a kind of typographic storm, three-dimensionally giving one the physical sensation of being caught in a vortex, signaling entry into quite a different space.

"Could the transcendent state of a dervish be at all expressed or alluded to? Was the experience of so-called disembodiment in any way related to other transcendent states"

In dance, chance operation, as it is generally understood, originates in chance decisions, which ultimately are "frozen" into a linear sequence in performance which can be repeated. However, in an interactive simulation, this notion can be taken further, as the chance is dependent upon the dancers' interaction with the computer simulation itself resulting in not one but a number of possible actions and consequences with significant degrees of unpredictability.

Cyber Human Dances Series Hollow Ground II

An articulation of body in motion both in a virtual and a physical performance space

The "Cyber Human Dance Series" is an experimental dance work exploring simulations of physical and virtual phenomena in the context of performance. Utilizing the integration of innovative digital technology into the choreographic and design process this work investigates all aspects of design and performance in cyberspace with particular emphasis placed on issues of real and perceived boundaries between virtual space and real space and the possibility of a blurred distinction between two intersecting worlds. In the making of the work questions are raised as to possible metaphors for the construction of virtual spaces and the bodies that inhabit them, leading to new ideas about the behavior of the body and its expression through motion.

What, for instance, are the ways in which the cyberdancer begins to claim a virtually constructed space through movement? What kind of a relationship (physical, emotional, psychological) can be established between a real dancer and his/her cyberspatial counterpart and how can narrative identities be exchanged, modified, or made explicit? Finally, how can these investigations be brought to performance as a means of formulating an appropriate language for dance in the virtual age?

The answers to many of these questions were realized in the creation of Hollow Ground II, a multi-faceted technologically mediated dance work investigating ideas surrounding the design of human avitars. Like the "Dervish" work that preceded it, Hollow Ground's choreography is driven by the relationship between varied collaborators and emergent technologies. Derived from the visual language of a computerized animated world, the work combines three-dimensional animation, digitized video, and real time performance in a choreography pairing CyberHumanDancers with their human counterparts. Capitalizing upon previously successful attempts to create holographic-like spaces in the "Virtual Dervish", Hollow Ground II searches for a blurred distinction between two intersecting worlds.

One important conversation that has grown out of the work has to do with the design issues related to the development of cyberspatial environments and virtual bodies. Issues of space, time, physicality, and gravity were explored as was the question of how the body is to be represented and inhabited within a virtual space. Also, what is the connection between humans and their representational presence in cyberspace and what exactly does it mean to be cyberhuman?

How can an articulation of the cyberfigure design process provide an answer to this question? What is an appropriate representation for a physical figure in a space that lacks physicality? How can a sense of bounded space be accommodated within an environment defined through it's lack of edges?

Furthermore, the design and performance process leading to the development of both cyberfigure and environment identified a model for effective collaboration between individuals and across technologies. This model illuminated the issues of how a collaborative technological investigation can infuse the work with a concern for methods of expression in virtual spaces. Moreover, the integration of the working methods of a group of individuals trained in different aspects of the arts offered insight into the range methodologies available for study, infusing the series with an energy of human discovery.


How are we to understand the artworks that are technologically mediated? Are these virtual environments, these simulations to be understood in terms of their duality. Existing simultaneously in several spaces or a problematized instance of simulacra, a place where fragmented and schizophrenic identities can further shatter themselves into ever smaller pieces? Is a collective identity of interactors from local or distributed sites possible in such a modality-rich environment? or is it necessary?

Professor Yacov Sharir is the artistic director of the Sharir Dance Company and is on the Dance faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. Sharir teaches courses in computer animation, 3D modeling, virtual reality and cyberspace.

Dancing with the Virtual Dervish was created in collaboration with Designer Diane Gromala. Professor Diane Gromala directs the New Media Research Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she teaches interdisciplinary courses related to emergent technologies.

Cyber Human Dances Series: Hollow Ground II was created in collaboration with Designer Katie Salen Professor Katie Salen is a faculty member of the Design Area in the Department of Art & Art history at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses in design and interactive technologies .

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