"Floating Calligraphy" from 3D: Dance in the Digital
Domain.All photos by 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
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."
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
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.
“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.”
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
the length and order of the piece’s seven sections. The dancers
had no time to prepare for changes in the sequence.
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.
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
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
“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
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
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.”
[Summer 2006 - Table of Contents]