I am a South Australian choreographer currently working with dance and new media. From 2001–2003 I studied for a Masters of Creative Industries at the Queensland University of Technology. During this time I contained my choreographic research within a newmedia dance project Ada and came to define my choreographic process as 'newmedia dance'.
I began my research at QUT with the intention of focusing on the dance component of my choreographic career. I felt that I needed to do this as my enthusiasm for new technologies was threatening to overtake my primary focus of creating new dance work. However, I chose to confine my studies within a project that was initiated by my attempt to understand the computer programmers who were my creative peers. Ada brought me back to dance and technology research and made me confront the fact that I was at this time in my artistic career, a choreographer whose work was deeply entwined with the digital age.
I began Ada in 1999 after coming across Ada Byron Lovelace and her role in the digital revolution, in Sadie Plant’s (1997) cyber-feminist text, Zeros + Ones; Digital Women and the New Technoculture. I identified this story as an appropriate vehicle through which to create a choreographic work, as I was fascinated by Ada’s obsession with technology, science and art. I saw a connection between this and her ill health, which was manifest in attacks of hysteria and finally cervical cancer. The story provided me with a thematic framework and complex questions about the relationship of the body and technology through which to develop the choreography.
Two years later, after having produced a version of Ada in Adelaide for Heliograph Productions and an Ada-influenced installation for the Adelaide Festival of Arts, I began my ‘Artistic Practice as Research’ on the project at QUT.
The research was conducted in a newmedia dance laboratory and grounded in Schons’ (1983: 54) principles for professional practice, "knowing–in–action," which he defines as "the characteristic mode of ordinary practical knowledge," and, "reflection–in–action," which he describes as, thinking about what we are doing as we are doing it. In my research, both were applied through choreographic tasks and discussion, wherein I sought a conceptual eloquence or clarity and a negotiation of potential form.
In the Ada project, participants were asked to apply a digital perspective, shift their area of expertise, and work across disciplines. Likewise, foAM’s vision statement describes an, "edge-habitat where discrete disciplines, individuals and realities symbiotically shape a peculiar hybrid whole," and furthermore, "this process of hybridisation is accelerated by one common denominator: the use of technology." Alternatively, in more conventional convergent models, collaborations include communicative structures where each specialist tends to inform the others’ discipline through instructions and suggestions rather than the direct sharing of content.
It was through the application of the digital perspective, or paradigm that I defined my choreographic process as newmedia dance. Newmedia dance cannot be compared to making dance film, using a digital aesthetic as scenography or creating a choreographic design that might be utilised for subsequent choreographic works. In regards to dance, I was interested in the expression of human character, through movement. As a choreographer I elicit the dancer’s emotional responses through conversation and choreographic tasks and arranged the physical outcome into an embodied language which makes up the dance.
Newmedia was a term coined to suggest the influence of new technology on the development of the choreographic art in this study. For the purpose of this study choreography was defined as both the art of designing movement derived from such physical experiences and the organisation of networks of people in creating a choreographic design.
I choreograph from a purely conceptual basis, and once I had located my interest in the history of digital culture, I found a wealth of inspiration from Ada Byron Lovelace’s letters in which she prophesises, among other things, a "Calculous of the nervous system."
It does not appear to me that cerebral matter need be more unmanageable to mathematicians than sideral & planetary matters and movements, if they would but inspect it from the right point of view. I hope to bequeath to the generations a Calculus of the Nervous System. (A.A.L in Toole, 1992: 296)
Exploring what exactly a “Calculus of the nervous system," could be, consumed a good deal of my time in the newmedia dance laboratory. This led me to identify a shift in physiological evolutionary advancement from aural to kinetic communication through my choreographic process that was supported by reading. An example of a new corporeality is alternate world syndrome, a malady experienced by pilots who fly Adasoft controlled fighter jets.
Adasoft, is a United States military software program that was named after Ada Byron Lovelace as it is renown for its ability to function across platforms and be extremely flexible. Heim (1998:52) describes the alternate world syndrome experience as a body amnesia whereby the pilot’s sense of kinaesthetic self-identity is ruptured after frequenting virtual worlds. Symptoms can include loss of postural balance, disorientation and flashbacks (Heim, 1998: 182).
As a choreographer I was interested in exploring the theatrical representation of evolving corporeality and I was particularly concerned with how a dancer expresses life in the digital age.
When questioning how a digital perspective guides my choreographic practise, I focussed on developing movement for three characters; a historical Ada Byron Lovelace, a historical Babbage, her collaborator who invented the first computer in the 1830s and a contemporary Ada whom I named Augusta. Augusta was the director and new media artist within the work who was responsible for creating, rendering and controlling the historical characters in both animated and real forms, live in performance. Through her role I was able to question how ‘enactment’ shifted the performer’s role in performance.
Throughout the successive stages of the project, I developed various electronic, mechanical, digital, physical and vocal interfaces through which Augusta could manipulate the action on stage. In doing so, I questioned the physical possibilities manifest through interactivity. I designed the role of Augusta to reflect my observation of how new media artists create work and she paralleled the flexible and adaptive personality of the historical character. She was someone who could cross mediums and work extremely well ‘on the fly’ creating digital content and allowing mutations and glitches to inform her decisions.
The above questions were explored through collaborative artistic practise in a process developed via the creation of the dance project Ada, through three stages. The first, in which I discovered my methodology and artistic questions, was with the students and staff at QUT. The second through which I consolidated the dramatic script was in Adelaide with professional artistic collaborators and the third was at the Canberra Choreographic Centre.
At the completion of stage three I reflected on the development of the work. I found that there had been a conflict between creating and editing choreographic material through digitally influenced choreographic techniques and the development of the emotional score of the character the performer developed. It might be said that skills attributed to training across various performance styles and approaches over time better equipped a dancer to respond to the research demands of a newmedia dance practice.
Secondly, working across disciplines involves multi-tasking and an ability to progressively re-assess one’s identity as an artist and an individual. This concept disempowered participants who were unable to recognise it as integral to the philosophies of Ada Byron Lovelace and the digital age on which the study is based. These participants found opportunities to practise skills in which they were expert, were at times taken away from them in favour of experimenting with new skills, which led to them feeling frustrated.
In regards to working with technology in performance, I found that choreographing interactivity is achieved through risk taking and requires the performers to enter a spirit of play with or without the company of a live audience and to be immediately responsive to media. Direct emotional response by the performer was key in enabling the audience to read interaction.
To sum up, whilst I undertook my degree at QUT I learnt a lot about developing academic methodologies for creative projects and evaluating progress and innovation across successive stages. These are very valuable tools for a choreographer and enabled me to explore a choreographic project more fully than I had in the past. In doing so I developed a taste for dance research that necessitates deep exploration over an extended time. I hope that I can continue to maintain this level of in depth practise through research and intellectual inquiry outside of ‘the academy.’
- Adasoft (1/5/02) http://www.adasoft.com.
- foAM (1/12/2002) fo.am/communique.html
- Heim, M. (1998) Virtual Realism, New York: Oxford University Press.
- Plant, S. (1997) zeroes and ones: Digital Women + The New Technoculture, New York: Doubleday.
- Schon, D.A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner; How Professionals Think in Action, USA: Basic Books Inc.
- Toole, B. A. (1992) Ada Enchantress of Numbers, California, Strawberry Press.