ADF 2011 Season Wrap I (Extended Dance Remix): Dear Science | Arts

ADF 2011 Season Wrap I (Extended Dance Remix): Dear Science



NOTE: As happens every year, we had a lot more to say about the AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL than we could ever fit into the print version of the INDEPENDENT. Thus these expanded essays, which delve more in depth into some of the issues that came up—plus one or two that didn't—during the season: our extended dance mixes for the 2011 ADF.


What has taken the place of conventional (or even unconventional) narrative, so devalued among some contemporary dance artists? One answer: the scientific and mathematical frames around several major new works, a development suggesting, among other things, a future in which a number of choreographers might also be termed chief investigators.

After Muybridge: Shen Wei Dance Arts LIMITED STATES
  • After Muybridge: Shen Wei Dance Arts' LIMITED STATES
At least since 2002’s Rite of Spring (Part I), SHEN WEI has set up various “games”—increasingly complex parameter sets governing movement and interaction—for his dancers to negotiate and solve, in real time, in sections of many of his works. In early sections of this summer's world premiere, measurement scales projected over dancers evoked physiological motion studies, conducted climbing stairs at mid-stage while performing various tasks (carrying a series of differently-weighted objects, dodging a tossed ball), as a series of computer-generated visualizations of motion studies were projected above the dancers. Even the name of the new work, LIMITED STATES, seemed lifted from a dissertation title.

But one week before, audiences who stayed for a post-performance discussion heard EMANUEL GAT delineate the underpinnings of his captivating new work BRILLIANT CORNERS in a manner eerily similar to a psychologist or sociologist describing the protocols and methodology of a behavioral experiment.

“We don’t invent. We discover,” Gat asserted. “I choreographed none of the movement. It was generated by the dancers through a long process in which I define their environment. The movement doesn’t precede the situation; the movement comes as a reaction to the environment and situation they are in... I try to determine a very clear environment: what are its mechanisms, what are the rules, the constraints they have to work in. The movement is a by-product of the situation.”

Indeed, what initially struck me upon first viewing as enviably articulate—but essentially random—phrases and gestures (so much so that an early line in my critic’s notes included the Pirandellian assessment, “Six dancers in search of a choreographer,”) slowly revealed a deeper structure and organization. Looking back, both were required, in significant amounts, to keep that number of people moving at that velocity from devolving into a mosh pit of collisions. In BRILLIANT CORNERS I saw a work filled with fast and agile changes, accompanied by (or in response to) similarly drastic variations at times in sound and light.

On the surface, it was hardly the first work of the 2011 season that appeared to over-rely on poses—YOSSI BERG and ODED GRAF’s early filibuster, ANIMAL LOST, and to a lesser extent, TAO DANCE THEATER’s 2 did as well.

Dancer Michael Lohr, midstage, in Emanual Gats BRILLIANT CORNERS
  • Dancer Michael Lohr, midstage, in Emanual Gat's BRILLIANT CORNERS
But in retrospect, it’s likely that a number of the pauses in Gat’s work were actually deliberative in nature. In their post-performance discussion, Gat and his performers described series of detailed instructions which changed from sequence to sequence; protocols affecting the parameters of their proximity, relationship, velocity and direction, not with one dancer on stage, but several dancers, simultaneously. “It’s very challenging,” dancer Fiona Jopp said in understatement. “You have to be concentrating.”

The performers also spoke of differing outcomes in every performance. “It’s not something you learn and create fifty times exactly, and after the tenth show you slowly get bored with doing it every day,” dancer Michael Löhr noted. “The moods the people are in will effect what I do. It’s just very interesting to see what actually happens.”

“There has to be a lot of flexibility in this structure,” Gat continued. “[The dancers] are very interdependent. They’re linked in so many ways… It’s like jazz: the musicians will improvise within very clear harmonic or rhythmic patterns, but they’re still in a very precise context.”

On the basis of what I saw and heard, I conclude that on one level BRILLIANT CORNERS actually constitutes a scientific experiment, one designed to explore the limits placed on autonomy, self-expression and kinesphere or personal space, when ten people are placed in a finite environment and are then compelled to interact in different ways.

It interests me that Shen Wei seemed to be asking similar questions about the limits of individual expression, autonomy and kinesphere, only within the context of a much more strongly-regimented on-stage “culture,” in the final, Chinese section of his 2006-2009 triptych, Re-.

By comparison, Gat seems to ask in BRILLIANT CORNERS, “What does it take to carve out individual space in a disharmonic, chaotic system when everyone else is trying to do the same?”

Genevieve Osborne, in Emanuel Gats BRILLIANT CORNERS
  • Genevieve Osborne, in Emanuel Gat's BRILLIANT CORNERS
This question raises a host of related queries. How much individual space—and how many individual spaces—can be established at any moment in such an environment? By what means? How long can they be maintained? As the total available area becomes occupied, how do these people negotiate room for expression, and maintain the growth and movement of their individual spaces? How does increasing and decreasing proximity affect the stability of those spaces’ co-existence? Where does individual space “go” when systemic demands encroach or erase it?

The significant differences in velocity during the work seem to ask at what sustained rate can change take place in an environment before notions of individual space and order break down completely?

The consequential element of dancers almost constantly watching one another—mandated to maintain programmed distances and relationships—asks how does surveillance change the idea of individual space?

I think sociologists and psychologists attempting to investigate various models in overcrowding or over-population studies are very likely to be interested in questions like these.

In the past half-decade, scientists have engineered algae cells and colonies of bacteria into so-called bio-computers capable of solving problems. In the last century, they’ve turned to distributive models including crowdsourcing to tackle imposing computational and scientific dilemmas.

Given BRILLIANT CORNERS, it now seems possible: if choreographers and dancers are given appropriate protocols and parameters, they may be capable of generating useful data that could help predict specific sociological or psychological scenarios, effects and outcomes.

In the near future, will Gat, his performers and similarly motivated choreographers be regarded, not only as artists, but scientists as well? I predict we’re going to find out. With results like those in BRILLIANT CORNERS, more research is clearly justified.

In a possibly related vein, former MIT dance scholar THOMAS DEFRANTZ anticipated establishing a “dance technology lab” when he begins work this fall at Duke University. DeFrantz anticipates outfitting his lab with multi-media production software applications including Isadora, Max/MSP and "simple motion capture.”

Pilobolus isn't the only one. Also blinded by science: Thomas Dolby
  • Pilobolus isn't the only one. Also blinded by science: Thomas Dolby
Unfortunately, though, PILOBOLUS may have been blinded by science when the premiere of SERAPH, with MIT’s DISTRIBUTED ROBOTICS LAB, demonstrated the undesired inverse of Clarke’s Third Law: If a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, an insufficiently advanced technology still looks like a couple of amateurs geeking out with their new AR.Drones (those edgy—and iPhone-controlled—quadroters that debuted this past year).

Technical failures—including on-stage crashes during an afternoon photo shoot and that evening’s premiere—repeatedly disabled dancer Matt Del Rosario’s “partners” in mid-performance. But another issue arose when the aerial tech was actually working.

I think you’ll be amazed at the footage I found, here on YouTube, in which programmed quadroters appear to echo, in real life, some of the thrilling CGI footage of the Quiddich games in the Harry Potter series of films.

By all means, see for yourself, as they make multiple mid-air flips and recover; fly unassisted through a set of stationary hoops; and sail neatly (and autonomously) through hoops thrown, randomly, in midair. Impressive—and almost indistinguishable from magic.

So what’s the problem? Each of those stunning achievements was made, in 2010, by a group of researchers at the UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, not Pilobolus’ partners at MIT. Unfortunately, that group came up with nothing remotely as visually interesting for SERAPH, one year later, in time for their opening night at ADF. Don't take my word for it; compare the footage here with our video preview for the work.

In comparison to UPenn’s nimble, brisk and sudden aviators, the MIT coptors cautiously crept out on stage and carefully circled around Del Rosario’s character, an urban primitive incongruously outfitted in little more than a mag flashlight and a dance belt, under Neil Peter Jampolis and Michael Dostal's murky lighting. True, toward the end, the twin aircrafts swooped across stage several times with a bit more vigor than the start—when all went well technically, that is. Still, the only thing these coptors ever did suddenly...was crash.

It’s obvious that a clutch of creators here were striving to create a heartwarming and amusing tale of alien first encounters and inter-species good will—albeit one drawing heavily upon a couple of early films by Stephen Spielberg.

The cautionary lesson here? When you create a work this reliant upon special effects, the effects actually have to be special.

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