You are here

Dance Goes Digital

Story by
Nancy Joseph
"Floating Calligraphy" from 3D: Dance in the Digital Domain.

"Floating Calligraphy" from 3D: Dance in the Digital Domain. Media credit: Karen Orders

When audience members settled into their seats to watch a UW dance performance in late May, they helped choreograph the fifth piece. They just didn’t know it.

A video camera filmed the audience before the show; those images became data that decided the order and length of the dance’s seven sections. 
That was just one of the surprising twists in “3D: Dance in the Digital Domain,” a concert involving collaborations between graduate students in the Dance Program and in Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS).

Each piece melded dance and technology in a different way. In one, dancers wore sensors that altered images projected at the back of the stage. In another they wore iPods that broadcast music affected by the dancers’ positions on the stage.

“The DXARTS students’ technological skills are artistic tools,” explains Richard Karpen, divisional dean of research and infrastructure and founding director of DXARTS. “They are emerging artists with serious high technology know-how. Both Dance and DXARTS students brought to the collaborations their artistic ideals and the unique techniques associated with their disciplines.”

The collaboration was not without challenges. When students from the two disciplines met last fall to discuss their work, they quickly discovered that they speak very different languages. 

“Dance is the Holland or Portugal of the arts,” says Mark Haim, artist-in-residence in the Dance Program. “Very few others speak the language of dance, so dancers need to learn other languages by necessity.” DXARTS also has a language that mystifies those outside the discipline, making communication between the two disciplines particularly challenging. 

Rachel Randall, Alice Gosti, and Shannon Narasimhan (from left) in "Tre Marie."

Rachel Randall, Alice Gosti, and Shannon Narasimhan (from left) in "Tre Marie."

Annie On Ni Wan, a PhD student in DXARTS, likens conversations between dancers and DXARTS students to “a physicist talking with someone in the humanities.” She says, “I don’t think the language problem can really be solved, but as long as we’ve got the same goal, it can work. That’s what collaboration is. You try to understand each other.”

Wan and fellow DXARTS student Hiroki Nishino collaborated with Pamela Pietro, a first-year graduate student in dance. The team decided to use sensors on dancers to trigger changes in imagery. Then they began working in earnest—separately. 

Pietro began choreographing the dance, titled “Tre Marie,” using music by Nishino and clips of Wan’s previous work as inspiration. Nishino worked on the technical aspects of the piece, designing a receiver, antenna, and sensors that could be worn by the dancers. And Wan began working on computer-generated imagery that would shift when one of the sensors—taped to three dancers’ hands and scattered on the wood floor—came into contact with a receiver on one dancer’s arm.

“As I did the choreography I kept in mind that everything had to be changeable, says Pietro. “I knew that changes might be necessary once we saw how it all came together.” Three weeks before the concert (presented in four performances over three days), the team finally combined the choreography, visuals, hardware, and software. The final weeks were spent making adjustments. 

Sensors were taped to the dancers' hands for "Tre Marie." A visible cord connected the receiver on Rachel Randall's arm (far left) to the antenna in her hair.

Sensors were taped to the dancers' hands for "Tre Marie." A visible cord connected the receiver on Rachel Randall's arm (far left) to the antenna in her hair.

“To see how it came together in those last few weeks was exciting,” recalls Pietro. “Hiroki and Annie are both such amazing artists. When I saw what they’d done, I thought, ‘This is going to be more gorgeous than I thought.’”

Those final weeks were also exciting—and challenging—for the undergraduates performing the pieces. Those dancing in “Tre Marie” had been focusing on Pietro’s choreography; now they had to focus on the sensors as well.

“At every moment, they had to be thinking about how the sensors were going to make contact with the receiver,” says Pietro. “They had to be ‘on’ all the time. And every performance was different, because sensors were scattered differently on the stage floor. That was the exciting part about it.”

Alice Gosti performed in “Tre Marie;” she also danced in “Random Access Movement,” the piece that changed nightly based on video of the audience. “I’ve done a lot of dance, but this felt different,” says Gosti. “We don’t get that many chances for collaboration, and to have that happen with the digital world, it was really interesting.”

Although “Tre Marie” had its challenges, it was “Random Access Movement” that made Gosti particularly nervous. For each performance, DXARTS student Alison Kudla translated the audience movement into a code that determined 
the length and order of the piece’s seven sections. The dancers had no time to prepare for changes in the sequence.

“We didn’t know the order of the sections in advance,” explains Gosti. “The lighting would change, cueing us to go on to the next section selected by the computer program. The color of the lighting, and the pattern it created on the floor, would signal which section we should be doing.” 

Pamela Pietro (left) and Annie On Ni Wan (center) discuss the best placement for a receiver that dancer Rachel Randall will wear during “Tre Marie.

Pamela Pietro (left) and Annie On Ni Wan (center) discuss the best placement for a receiver that dancer Rachel Randall will wear during “Tre Marie.

About half the piece was choreographed; the other half was improvised. Gosti was comfortable with the improvisational aspect but found the transitions between sections a bit hair raising. “As soon as we’d see the lighting change, we had to figure out how to get to the next section,” she says. “We had to make it feel continuous. We had to really concentrate and make decisions in the moment. It was hard but also really exciting.”

Like all experiments, this collaboration had an element of risk. The dancers were in unfamiliar territory, the choreographers and digital artists had to find common ground, and audiences had to keep an open mind. Before the concert, Haim and Karpen weren't sure how it would all turn out. But they agreed that whatever the outcome, the collaboration was worth the risk.

“I remember thinking that the concert could totally flop or totally work,” says Haim. “But I knew that either way would be okay, because the University should be a place of experimentation. It’s the best place—the safest place—to do this.”

As it turned out, the concert ran smoothly, engaging and challenging the performers and audience. And for some involved, it was only the beginning of a longer collaboration. 

“We’ll be presenting our piece again at a DXARTS concert in the fall,” says Wan, who already has plans to improve on the May performance. “The first time around, we had to deal with large technical problems like sending the signal and how to attach devices to the dancers. Next time we can focus on being more ambitious, both technically and artistically.”

Do the students have advice for others embarking on a collaboration? Pietro, who says she is already thinking about future collaborative projects, has just one suggestion: be open.

“You have to be willing to change,” she says, “because it’s like life—just when you think you've got it down, something is going to happen. But if you’re willing to be open, the journey is really amazing. When I think of where we started and where we got to, it’s pretty incredible.”