PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Dancerly Creativity and Technological Innovation

Episode Summary

Hosted by Jacob's Pillow Associate Archivist Patsy Gay, this episode explores the intersection of dance and technology, diving into both history and current practice. Through the voices and perspectives of Marjani Forté-Saunders, Sydney Skybetter, Brian Brooks, Lily Baldwin, and Ilya Vidrin, we hear how technology can both hinder and enforce a dancer's embodied awareness.

Episode Notes

Hosted by Jacob's Pillow Associate Archivist Patsy Gay, this episode explores the intersection of dance and technology, diving into both history and current practice. Through the voices and perspectives of Marjani Forté-Saunders, Sydney Skybetter, Brian Brooks, Lily Baldwin, and Ilya Vidrin, we hear how technology can both hinder and enforce a dancer's embodied awareness.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN:Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce Patsy Gay, our Associate Archivist, who will be your host for this episode on dance and technology. We’ll hear from some of the field’s leading voices on this topic and learn how technology can either enforce or hinder a dancer’s embodied awareness.

PATSY GAY: I have always deeply loved artists who work at the fertile and sometimes uncomfortable intersection of dance and technology. Perhaps it’s because growing up, my dad ran a home business in computer programming specializing in virtual reality (also known as VR), so my childhood world was equal parts going off to learn some cool new move in dance class and coming home to play around with a rad head-mounted VR helmet my dad was working with. For me, dancerly creativity and technological innovation are a natural mix. Now, you might think that I’d start my exploration of dance and technology at Jacob’s Pillow with holograms and fancy computers. And we’ll get there. And get to grappling with the growing import of technology and embodiment in our daily lives too. But, I actually want to ground this episode with some sage words about the ever-presence of technology from choreographer, performer, and community organizer Marjani Forté-Saunders who creates collaborative works with her partner the composer and technologist Everett Saunders. This recording of Marjani Forté-Saunders is from a virtual PillowTalk on Dancerly Intelligences, which was part of Jacob’s Pillow’s first-ever virtual Festival in the summer of 2020.

MARJANI FORTÉ-SAUNDERS: I don’t know where this idea that technology always means the new thing... [laugh] But there’s so much technology to, one, how we compose our work and to what we’re pulling on in terms of imagery or ideas or story. There’s so much history to it. And there’s no way we could ever reveal all of it. And so it becomes like very, for lack of a better word, pregnant. Every action that we’re doing is really full and deeply layered.

PATSY GAY: The idea of the depth and history and presence of technology really connects with me. As an archivist, I get to experience everyday the resonance of the past with the present, and the layers of history that live actively inside contemporary art and life. Forté-Saunders illuminates those connections in her artwork. She goes on, later in that talk, to connect that history with the technology of the body.

MARJANI FORTÉ-SAUNDERS: It helps us to remember that though we are working in the corporeal body, there’s a great deal of scholarship, and research, and history, and studying, and diving that goes into what we make. I know that we know that, but. [laugh] …  But then there’s also what it is that I think we do as choreographers, which is how we weave together varying forms of technologies to tell a story. Not simply for the fun of the work itself, which also has a degree to it–there’s some fun to it. But obviously. But also–not obviously. But also, this incredible amount of weaving that we do as artists to tell a whole story and give people different faces to that story through the technology.

PATSY GAY: Keeping with those threads of corporeality and story, we’ll hear now from dance and film artist Lily Baldwin. In a 2018 PillowTalk, Baldwin describes discovering the communicative technology of dance during her time dancing with the musician David Byrne on his EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS WILL HAPPEN TODAY World Tour with Brian Eno, choreographed by Annie B. Parson.

LILY BALDWIN: Essentially what it had me doing was looking at the power of dance as a story tool–as this sort of subterranean communication with people. People, I swear, heard the music better with the dance. “I don’t even know what that was, but I just started doing something.” And it kind of gave people permission to hear the music in a different way and to even move in a different way. So, I found myself talking about dance with people that I hadn’t before. So, I knew that there was sort of this under-excavated story tool of dance and body as an alphabet, essentially, to tell stories.

PATSY GAY: Baldwin goes on to discuss how the power of dance and story can be deepened with computer technology, talking specifically about the 360 narrative VR film Through You, which she Co-directed with Saschka Unseld.

LILY BALDWIN: It’s a very intimate experience with yourself. Currently–in the way this is being screened–is it’s just you inside of a world. There’s nothing collective about 360 in this virtual experience. That is changing now. But, so you’re not in an audience watching something. So, it’s immediately just you with something. And also you are essentially the protagonist. You are on stage. And you are surrounded by 360 degrees of activity. And so you are at the center of everything. So, in itself that structure of the technology proposes a really unique approach to story and intimacy.

PATSY GAY: In the same 2020 virtual PillowTalk as Forté-Saunders, Sydney Skybetter, the choreographer and founder of The Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces, also discussed bodies and technology and intimacy, but from a very different angle.

SYDNEY SKYBETTER: In 2015 there were a slew of news stories, primarily coming out of Facebook, namely how these surveillant capitalist companies were tracking our bodies’ movements through space and time and using those movements–those kind of intimate gestures of our lives–at scale to determine sort of what it is that we do with our lives. How we generate meaning from our lives. And in a very real way they were generating choreographic significances from our real-time historical and an historical movements. And this for me is a choreographic function. Right? It’s space and time, movement and interpretation. The difference being instead of it being butts in seats looking at a stage its computational or algorithmic system.

PATSY GAY: These risks of technology and its intersection with body and choreography that Skybetter is starting to highlight are vital and growing concerns in our modern world. Thankfully, he does illuminate a potential path forward, which he sees growing from dance and technology collaboration.

SYDNEY SKYBETTER: In working with computer scientists, roboticists, folks who more easily–or are trained to more frequently think about objects rather than bodies–I find that so often our first rounds of conversation are to ground everyone in their own bodies. To consider how our bodies/our embodiment affects things like collaboration, or teamwork, or computation, or to consider maybe how our training does or does not consider these things. For myself, at Brown, the majority of my students, some of them are professional–training to become professional dancers–but the vast majority of them are computer scientists. Folks who, outside of very limited coursework, would never have the opportunity to consider the body through the lens of the humanities or dance training. And I think that when thinking about the corporeal risks of our moment. Thinking about how performance and surveillance affects all of our bodies, it seems that this is a really important time to be talking about bodies with computer scientists and otherwise.

PATSY GAY: Engaging in those fertile conversations between artist and technologist is exactly what choreographer Brian Brooks did as part of his Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded Creative Artist Fellowship at University of Washington, where he was investigating the intersections of performance and augmented reality technologies. He described this research and where it took his artwork during the Post-Show Talk for his holographic Augmented Reality piece Viewpoint at Jacob’s Pillow in July 2021.

BRIAN BROOKS: So that’s where I began speaking with artists and other choreographers about how they’re using technology: sensors on the body, motion capture, VR, projections, hybrids of all of them, triggering sound, triggering video… You can almost absorb the tech into any part of the body right now. It kept coming back about accessibility. The more we researched I realized maybe this could–the question that kept coming up in all the different sectors was: does technology replace what we do live? At the time, pre-pandemic, it was: does venturing into a dance project that uses streaming holograms replace a live stage show? So, I was working to think of it not as replacement, but as: what can we do with technology that we can’t do in live performance? So, it led to accessibility–places that dance, contemporary dance, might not go, right? Not just because of interest, but also there might not be dance programs, theaters that present dance in communities across the country. So, one idea was access: this way you can go online, it’s free, and you can see live dance. We also can–we’re having a conversation right now with everyone watching. They can hear us. It’s like Zoom–we could unmute them and talk to them as well. So, I think the potential for being integrated into communities we can’t go to live is so great.

PATSY GAY:  Choreographer, dramaturg, and research-practitioner Ilya Vidrin, takes a different approach to exploring technology and using it to augment reality in dance. His research, as he describes it, “examines ethics in physical interaction, including intimate labors of care, cultural competence, and social responsibility.” In March 2018 he participated in the inaugural year of Jacob’s Pillow’s re-imagined artistic residency program: The Pillow Lab. Here he is speaking about his residency, his research, and his technological explorations in a July 2018 PillowTalk.

ILYA VIDRIN: So, the technology that we brought into the studio is basically relational augmented reality technology. It’s very simple: it’s a pressure sensor and a gyroscope, which measures acceleration, orientation, and position–absolute position in space–stop me if I’m talking too fast. But, essentially, initially I thought: OK maybe I can capture something about the complexity of partnering. And then thought: Nope. That’s not what this technology is for. This technology is for visualizing and augmenting the reality for audiences when little, little, little things are happening between dancers that are typically missed. Like the ways in which weight shifts, but only from the ball of the foot to the heel. Like the way in which we shift from the heel of the palm to the fingers. Things that might not be visible in a proscenium stage, at the back of the audience. But it has outputs, so it’s sound-based or light-based or vibration-based. So, primarily it’s for the dancers to augment their experience of partnering in which they can start to be in better, or deeper dialogue about what it means to be connected. Then they can say: “Well, I felt this and I know you didn't.” Or “I didn’t feel this and I can see that your light is on. So, what’s going on for you?” [Laughter] Primarily from this sort of deep philosophical question of what it means to be disconnected.

PATSY GAY: I think that grounding question of the meaning of connection and disconnection is deeply resonant. And Vidrin goes on to illuminate some continuing investigative questions he’s hoping that his dance combined with his technology will spark in the minds of the audience viewing his work.

ILYA VIDRIN: “The way I see my research playing together is that there’s a way in which we engage with the dance as a piece. But then we walk away saying: “What does it mean to be connected? What does it mean to be connected at this moment in time? What does it mean to be connected here? Now? Versus yesterday? Versus tomorrow? Versus ten years ago? With this person? With that person? Can I be more aware? Is there something that can be made more salient by the way in which we’re…” And I’ve been thinking about that since March and it’s haunting my dreams.”

PATSY GAY: In this PillowTalk, Vidrin was talking about March 2018 when he and his collaborators were in residence at Jacob’s Pillow for the Pillow Lab. But, for me, hearing his words, I instantly think about March 2020–think about the pandemic and quarantine and the subsequent drastic changes to all of our lives. In this shifting contemporary landscape we exist in, we’re all now grappling with technology and corporeality–whether it’s watching dance performances streamed online or attending family events over Zoom. We’re all now doing our own daily embodied research into distance and proximity–whether we’re navigating social distancing at the grocery store or deciding whether to give someone a hug. 

To me, this massive surge in awareness of bodies and technology makes it even more vital for artists to continue to explore these intersecting fields. I look forward to what is yet to come. More investigations. More innovations. More growth for the worlds of dance and technology–and for ourselves. But, for today, it’s time for me to wrap up this exploration of dancerly creativity and technological innovation at Jacob’s Pillow. I’ll sign off by repeating Vidrin’s potent questions in the hope that they spur on your own continuing explorations: What does it mean to be connected?  What does it mean to be connected at this moment in time? What does it mean to be connected here? Now? Versus yesterday? Versus tomorrow? And I’ll add, how can dance–both in-person and virtual–help us all become more connected?

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or onsite.