Image copyright Nic Sandiland
Written by Nic Sandiland
Presenting movement and choreography for spaces beyond the stage is both a liberating and somewhat problematic issue. The dance world has nurtured and protected its theatres for very good reason; these tailored environments, on which we present and view our work, have large sprung floors perfected for group choreography. They provide unobstructed viewing, often through raked seating, and are accompanied by precision stage lighting to literally highlight every motion. Add to that the unsaid and certified label provided by the institution that what is presented there is “recognised” as contemporary dance in the same way that work presented in an art gallery is given visual art status.
Although these aspects are highly supportive of contemporary dance, they also hinder aspects of its evolution, particularly with respect to its transposition across to other environments such as the art gallery, public foyer and other non-conventional spaces. This presents an obstacle if the dance was conceived with a stage convention in mind.
In my experience however, what is so exciting about these new contexts is exactly that: much conventional choreography doesn’t necessarily work when placed in them, however as with any new opportunity, other possibilities present themselves. Take for example, the gallery. Simply put a gallery scenario allows for a more one-to-one experience of an artwork because it is exhibited for a much longer period of time. A choreographic work can be more sculptural and become freed from the constraints of dramatic structure if placed in this context. This is something that I personally find more conducive to the presentation of our choreographic installation work.
At this point many arts practitioners may begin to shout – yes we’re well familiar with the challenges of site-specific dance; however what I am describing is not necessarily limited just to the change of site, but also includes a change in medium. If I were asked to summarise my role in Flexer and Sandiland I would say that I try to explore new frames for movement and choreography and in doing so I let the frame suggest the nature of the choreography contained within or around it. I could place a smug quote here and start jabbering on about Marshal McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message” but I won’t (oh, I think I already have. Smugness has got the better of me).
In a moment I’ll elaborate on this by describing a few of the new pieces that I am making for the Brighton Digital Festival next month.
Hey, we’re presenting at the Brighton Digital Festival. No mention of dance in that title. I feel a reframing happening.
Interestingly a quick look on Google reveals very little about the nature of festival, apart from the fact that it covers digital culture “workshops, conferences and many community events”, a beautifully constructed description that can cover all manner of forms yet doesn’t succumb to any one prescriptive definition of digital culture. Genius. For those of my generation digital suggests images of wires, robots, electronics, and nerdy teenagers, others might think of Facebook, blogs, hacking and further nerdy teenagers. In fact, in my experience, and I have been an avid visitor and contributor over the past few years, the festival takes digital as a political force to bridge divides, unite the disparate, and open up the hallowed temples of the gallery and theatre, and it does this exceedingly well. So the digital festival now seems an ideal place though which to re-position choreographic work that sits outside theatrical conventions.
Back to choreography and reframing.
In my superficial and sweeping generalisation of the “digital” I briefly mentioned robotics. This is an area that I’m currently interested in to give me an alternative frame through which to look at movement and choreography. Like many artists I teach part time at a University. For me this is Middlesex University, an institution which has undergone many radical shifts over the past few years. As a result I now find myself within a hundred yards of the engineering design department, home to a large robotics research facility. It may seem like a select and recent venture bringing together such diverse disciplines such as robotics and choreography but they do in fact have a rich history together. Take for example choreographers Deborah Hay & Lucinda Childs who, over sixty five years ago collaborated with engineers from Bell Laboratories to create a series of robotic platforms for 9 Evenings of Theatre and Engineering. They integrated these moving platforms and mobile booths into the choreographic scores transporting the dancers through and around the performance space in a radical and surprising manner.
Our two current installations, Weighting (to be premiered at this year’s Digital Festival), and Rolling (to be shown later in the year) also focus on robotic movements produced by motors, gears and electronics, and, now that we’ve arrived at the 21st century, they incorporate LED video screens too. These works aim to challenge both the frame and the nature of its choreographic content. On the surface Weighting has very little on-screen movement; most of the time it portrays a number of performers seemingly waiting around in a Becket-like state. Occasionally however there’s a subtle shift where onscreen action relates to the mechanical motions that surround it forming what might be described as a simple choreographic act.
Rolling too also involves a relationship between on-screen movements and motorised motion. This time the movements are more dynamic: video clips of the local Aikido club in action. The robotics in this instance are integrated into a large oil drum causing it to roll in response to impulses on the screen.
Both these pieces wouldn’t work as such on stage, and are certainly not transferable to any standard group choreography in their current state. But of course that’s not the point, the aim here is to open up movement and the choreographic eye, encompassing new forms of presentation.
Now I must get back to rewiring the dancers.
Weighting will be installed in Brighton as part of Brighton Digital Festival in September 2015. Visit our website for more information.