How does one understand dance?

How does one understand dance? Dancers watching dance carry an immense amount of knowledge gained over years. We have been trained to see and appreciate dance technique, know the history of dance and progression of dance works, perceive details in nuanced movements and musical phrasing, and can correlate movements to, perhaps, the social commentary being presented in a dance work. As a dancer, I don’t know what it’s like to not know these things, but I definitely have come out of the theater with some non-dancers who had absolutely nothing to say about the performance we’d just watched. Is it because of lack of accessibility and connection? Did the visual stimulation need to be more familiar to them?

I believe there is a kinesthetic response that occurs to viewers of dance, but if one isn’t as inclined to somatic connection, an integral part of dance is not communicated. When I pose the question of how one understands dance, it is to understand how a dance work should be represented over time in a performing arts archive. How can we document the essence of a work and its essential parts in order to restage it later in time? How can a dance scholar understand the work? Can the general public enjoy a documented dance?

A videorecording of a performance, many agree, flattens the live performance and doesn’t add new information. In William Forsythe’s 2010-2013 Motion Bank initiative, one of the goals was to provide a visually stimulating translation of dance works, since he believes that most people are “illiterate when it comes to knowledge about the art form of dance.” His collaborators  from the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphic Research and Ohio State University (from the Advanced Computing Centre) work with motion capture in order to create “more possibilities for the optical presentation of motion.” I agree, with more visual stimulation, the results are fascinating, and non-dance literate viewers and dance literate viewers alike are clued into many more details of the dance work.

Synchronous objects score on Motion Bank

Synchronous objects score on Motion Bank

Dance curated in this way provides many more layers of information and knowledge, including the various artistic collaborations such as costuming, lighting, music, and staging. When a viewer learns about a dance in this way, they see details. Focus and trajectory are accented with animated lines, and dancers are connected when performing the same movement. With more visual stimulation, eyes dart back and forth, buttons are interactively clicked, a viewer is able to study the dance. Then, the dance can be viewed as a simple videorecording, with all the various layers of information toggled off. There is enough depth of information to stimulate a wide range of viewers, and the details are complete enough to teach the dance to a new generation of dancers.

1.4 million euros was provided by Germany’s Federal Culture Foundation for Motion Bank, as part of a larger 12.5  million euro dance funding endeavor. In four years, the Motion Bank Phase One includes just four dance scores, however, the project included outreach and education amongst dance scholars and archivists to fully understand the projects end results, lessons learned, and future potential. Education focal points include learning how these online choreographic resources can be integrated into academic programs, how science and technology can further engage with dance, and discussion with artists who are interested in presenting their works accessible in a new digital medium. Considering the cost, this is hardly a framework that all dance companies can implement yet the outcome is innovative and specific to dance. Hopefully we see can afford to create more rich documentation like it in the future.

This new digital dance resource is a great example of creating new access points to dance, especially with the tools that online interactivity can afford. I can imagine that my less dance-inclined friends would be able to talk about the cool things you can do on the Motion Bank website, even if those things that engaged them don’t have anything to do with understanding the dance work. Still, a connection was made, and perhaps this is something that they will take with them next time at the theater. Even though the core of dance is movement and somatic awareness, not everyone who sees dance is able to connect to it in this way. Curated sites like Motion Bank reach out and engage dance illiterate viewers with visual animations, graphs, and an exploratory interface, providing alternative ways to understand dance. To give viewers even more knowledge, should somatic awareness workshops be next? And can we do this online?


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