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Body art

Plugged into the world

An innovative study shows how dance and body evolved together and both in harmony with technology

A good way to understand contemporary dance is to understand that it wants to be plugged into the world. In choreographers’ work, chance improvisation and common day-to-day movements are present. The more their work are impregnated into the world, indeed contaminated by it, the better the result. However, one cannot say that there is no rule, because at least one is followed to the letter: the search for diversity. As one of the proposals of this movement is to move in the time of society, technology simply cannot be left off the stage. From the end of the 80’s, sensors, cameras and micro filming cameras, videos, holographs, software and specific hardware, laser and scanner, have all entered onto the scene as agents of the spectacle and have represented an esthetic reflex of this evolution.

The first registers of the use of a computer in dance date back to 1964, but there is practically no studies on this theme here in Brazil. This was the proposal of the choreographer and ballerina Ivani Santana, for her recent doctorate thesis defended at the Communication and Semiotic Department of the Catholic Pontifical University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), which with FAPESP’s support resulted in the book Corpo Aberto: Cunningham, Dança e Novas Tecnologias (Open Body: Cunningham, Dance and New Technologies), published by Educ.

The proposal was to understand dance and body as pertaining to the same evolutionary process in a chain link of semiotics. Thus, it was noted that the new form of dance did not emerge as an isolated fact, grouped within only the artistic universe, nor was one dealing with inaugural estheticism, a form of art created by the extension of new artifacts. Dance-technology came about starting from the change of the macro system. The key to assimilating the work of these artists lies in the body itself, one of the instruments used to signal the changes in the universe, since within it indeed are contained many of these transformations.

In order to understand how dance-technology functions, one has to bear in mind that the digital era did not come on the scene as a mere scenic resource. “One is not dealing with productions that juxtapose various media, this is not collage”, Ivani says. For the author, the creations that make use of this technology only in a scenographic manner do not make up part of her reflections. The technological resources are agents of the spectacle, as important as the ballerina, the music, and the programmer, and interact with each of them. Art, science and technology become intertwined.

Software
The book traces a panorama on the use of technology in the digital era. The first known research in the use of a computer as a scenographic assistant was carried out by Paul Le Vasseur, in 1964, in France, and by Jeanne Beaman, in 1969, in the United States. From that time onwards, software has been developed for various functions, such as: choreographic notation and composition (a type of choreographic score), research, analysis, creation and the capture of movements, educational assistance programs and computing environments for interference in real time. The sensors can be placed on any part of the stage – on the floor, on the walls, on the scenery, and/or on the bodies of the artists.

With all of this available, performances such as that presented in L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune, by Marie Chouinard, in Canada, took place. Dressed with technological apparel, the ballerina Pamela Newell danced between five columns of light and had the opportunity to control them. There also are more radical works. In Australia, in the work Sculpture of the Stomach, Stelarc literally discussed the question of the body in art. A very small gadget, used in implants, is swallowed by the artist and captures the image of the interior of the body, showing a light that goes on and off in synchrony with the sound of a bell. The celebrated ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov used the weight of the four hundred year old tradition of classical ballet to contribute with the spreading of dance-technology. In Heartbeat: MB, by Christopher Janney and Sara Rudner, he commemorated fifty years on the stage leaving to the audible beating of his heart.

The Palindrome Group from Germany made use of the capture of images to control the environment. Archived in the computer’s memory are inputs that transform themselves into new information, such as music, projection or illumination. A camera is placed on top and two are available on the wings of the stage to register the height, breadth and depth of the image and to establish a three dimensional image (this system is called the Frame-Grabbing System). They turn themselves into a powerful sensor, since they perceive what is the trajectory realized by the movement of the body in space and time.

Another example of the sophistication to which these programs can reach is the Very Nervous System, by the Canadian artist David Rokeby, which detects, via a video camera, the presence, the immobility and the velocity of the performer’s action. The captured images from one or two pieces of apparatus are mapped on a pre-defined grid. Each small square, or any other allowed format, of this grid gives information about the changes that occur – and the alert is done by way of the alterations of light on each region. The best known program in this medium is Life Forms, used to assist in the creation of choreography. By way of avatars it is possible to create and simulate movement in space and time. In this scenario everything is possible. “The setting of the work is controlled by emergent and experimental technologies”, Ivani says.

Team
With so many protagonists on stage, teamwork has become fundamental. In this type of spectacle creation is divided up both by the choreographer and by the specialists in technology and the dancer, a co-creator in real time, who very often controls the various media on stage, during the presentation. In order to put the work in harmony, each person must know a little about the work of the others. The multimedia artist needs to understand dance and the performer also cannot be illiterate in new technologies. “The creation of dance-technology does not need third party services from other areas, it is in need of true collaborative projects, since the arts work entangled with each other”, she adds. Since 1996, Ivani has been working with the musician Fernando Iazzetta, a researcher into the relationship music-new technologies.

The American choreographer Merce Cunningham makes up part of the book’s title because he is one of the people largely responsible for all of this opening up of dance, for the insertion of this art into the contemporary world. An innovator since the 50’s, and author of such phrases as “the dancers work with their bodies and each body is unique”, Cunningham, at eighty-three years of age, is active until today. He created the process of chance, changed the form in which the body is to be worked, decreed that ballerinas could dance on whatever point of space. And since 1989 has been working within the digital world.

When, in 1994, she took an interest in dance-technology, Ivani did not even have a computer. At that time, according to her recollections, she had already worked in Australia, in Japan, in the United States. In Brazil, there was not a single bibliography available, nor study released. This was one of the reasons for which the author got in touch with the Communications and Semiotics Department of the Catholic Pontifical University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). The practical result of Ivani’s work is the spectacle entitled Gedanken, Dança Imagem Tecnologia (Gedanken, Dance Image Technology). Some believe that technology could finish with dance, others that it is dance’s salvation. Ivani is attempting to understand these opposites, in this form of dancing that illuminates passion.

The project
Open Body: Cunningham, Dance and New Technologies (nº 01/04092-0); Modality Publication assistance; Coordinator Helena Katz – Post Graduate Studies Program, Communication Semiotics/Catholic Pontificate University of São Paulo (PUC-SP); Investiment R$ 3,500.00

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