Movement taxonomies for describing performances


Sparkles! Created with DanceForms.

There is magic in dance performance. This magic can additionally be found in the work of artists who explore digital media to evoke kinesthetic responses and other reactions to their art. For the most part, I personally relate dances with movement. However, I also accept post-modern explorations of dances in stillness, as innovations and challenges against prior standards allow this artistic field of dance to evolve and grow. I connect with movement, and as an archives graduate student, I understand the challenges of documenting this multi-dimensional concept. With my interests regarding bodies in motion and digital technology, I’ve been looking at the common ground of movement in dance and machinima performance.

In computer games, users not only play these games, but have also discovered how to go beyond the confines of the software and use the technology as a creative mechanism for developing films, dances, and performances. This phenomenon of unintended usage has been coined machinima (a portmanteau of machine cinema). Participants in this subculture have figured out how to “choreograph” or move their characters for real-time performances within a running game. This includes pre-planning a sequence of actions for game characters which can then be performed at a specified time and place within the game world, or recorded and viewed at later dates. When I first imagined the scenario of computer game creative agents working with their game characters to create performances, I thought of Merce Cunningham’s famous use of LifeForms, a computer software that includes the ability to animate movement on human body models and to choreograph portions of Cunningham’s works. Cunningham used LifeForms as a choreography tool before actual performances in order to create movement vocabularies. His use of this software, since 1989, was the first of its kind at the time. Dances and performances are just one application of machinima and include advertised performances in Second Life that appear at specific venues, during specific times; or in creative pieces such as “Dance, Voldo, Dance” set to specified music. When I view selections of machinima performances, I appreciate the performances as I appreciate live dance performances in many similar ways—my body reacts kinesthetically to both types of choreographies. Unconsciously, my body will want to move with the movement of the performers, I feel more engaged and aware during moments of intensity, and I almost hold my breath at the end of a movement phrase. Of course, the main difference between machinima and live dance performance is the involvement of skilled dancers and performers in the latter.

[Play around with DanceForms, from the same software company that made the software Merce used.]

Although these two genres are separate and different, there are intriguing overlaps when considering the structure of the “thing.” These overlaps include descriptive ontologies for artistic movement and conceivably include archiving an object in parts to best capture the authoritative, informative object. A dance performance space, such as a theater, can be thought of similarly as the world created by a software program. In current archival practices, parts of the whole performance are described in detail separately from each other in order to take advantage of each field’s specific ontology: stage design, lighting cues, choreography, costume design, musical composition. Similarly, machinima takes place in particular settings of the creator’s choice. Music may be selected and cued to specific movements, just as it is in dance. In both cases, archivists may argue that the movement is the main focal point of the performance, although these environmental details matter. When offering a theory of game design taxonomy, Crawford (2005) says, “…the verb list provides us with an architectural skeleton for games. . . [j]ust as biological taxonomists learned to ignore prominent but uncharacterizing features of various animals, concentrating instead on fundamental structural details such as the shape of the pelvis, so too must scholars of game design concentrate on the properties that matter: the verbs. Ignore such extrinsic details as graphics, sound effects, animation, and so forth; strip away the showy fur, feathers, and skin and look at the skeleton of the game. Thus will you obtain a clearer view of the reality of the game” (p. 8-9). Likewise, prominent choreographers are recognized for their particular movement vocabularies and different games are known for their verb lists of actions.

The history of dance is long and notation systems have been in development since the late-1600s, beginning with the Beauchamp-Feuillet notation of baroque dance. Since the human body is more expressive than game software characters, dance notation systems are detailed, but still encourage notation experts to focus on the core important aspects of choreography. Suggested dance ontologies are based off a modern and widely-accepted notation system, Labanotation, yet the challenges of documenting choreography systematically are still being explored. The boundaries of dance and machinima are constantly expanding and threatening to outgrow existing taxonomies. How do we create a taxonomy that will complement this growth?

Crawford, C. (2005). The two faces of reality. The International Digital Media & Arts Association Journal 2(1). 8-9.

Although the two pieces below are worlds apart, I think they are good examples of the greater creativity and ability of bodies that move.

Sutra screenshot
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra (at 45:07 of this recording).
Dance, Voldo, Dance screenshot
Chris Brandt’s Dance, Voldo, Dance (at 1:18 of this recording).
Premiere: 27 May 2008, Sadler’s WellsChoreography
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Music composition
Szymon Brzóska

Set design
Antony Gormley

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Ali Ben Lotfi Thabet, Damien Fournier, Shi Yanbo, Shi Yanchuang, Shi Yanci, Shi Yandong, Shi Yanhao, Shi Yanjiao, Shi Yanjie, Shi Yanli, Shi Yanmo, Shi Yannan, Shi Yanpeng, Shi Yanqun, Shi Yantao, Shi Yanting, Shi Yanxing, Shi Yanyong, Shi Yanyuan, Shi Yanzhu

Live music
Alies Sluiter, Olga Wojciechowska, Laura Anstee, Coordt Linke, Szymon Brzóska

Assistant choreography
Ali Ben Lotfi Thabet, Satoshi Kudo, Damien Fournier, Damien Jalet

Lou Cope, An-Marie Lambrechts

Light design
Adam Carrée

Dance, Voldo, Dance
Final version, 2005By
Chris Brandt

Tana Rusitanonta

Soul Calibur

Character controllers
T.J. McBainst, Yoshimattsu



Recording Device
Sony DV Camcorder


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