Salon NOTEBOOK: Dance + Technology: What is Happening NOW?
By Zachary Whittenburg
Two conversations merged at the Chicago Cultural Center May 4. Since January, the Chicago Artists Resource/Department of Cultural Affairs series of At Work Forums have included four dedicated to dance, panel discussions on outside-of-the-studio issues like audience development and critical dialogue. Meanwhile, as you know, Chicago Dancemakers Forum has assessed the relationship between dance and technology since February, through Silverspace Salons with Grisha Coleman, Mark Jeffery, Judd Morrissey and Allison Peters Quinn. Expanding the conversation even further was an excellent run of tech-related events and performances presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College during the same three-month period. How dance is changing--and being changed by--our webbed world is on many Chicagoans' minds; the panel did fine work both prompting new questions on the subject, and putting this unofficial summit in perspective.
Scott Silberstein, executive producer and co-founder of multifaceted production company HMS Media, received an introduction that prompted choreographer Chris Elam, founder of Misnomer Dance Theater, to mime a licked finger sizzling upon touching Silberstein's shoulder. Elam was revealed to be no slouch himself, as moderator Dr. Meida Teresa McNeal listed his and Misnomer's achievements, including special-effects-integrated choreography for Ghost Robot and Encyclopedia Pictura's groundbreaking 3D music video for Björk's "Wanderlust." Dance-Tech.net guru Marlon Barrios Solano provided insights on dance's subset of the larger democratizing forces of the Internet, while Lucky Plush Productions founder/choreographer Julia Rhoads explained how she's not only integrated media and technology with her stage work, but has creatively utilized social networking to market it, and made its effects the subject of the work itself.
A recurring theme was how, as Silberstein put it, "when you take away a dimension, you have to give one back." Interfacing with the virtual world is mostly done on a flat plane. Video editing, web design and social media may "extend the performance forward and backward in time," Elam said, "and give audience handles on, and new ways to engage with the material," but they lack dance's most crucial ingredient: Shared physical space. Of the four, Solano spoke most radically about this paradigm shift, saying, "Dance is not a practice for special people--it's a way of thinking, a way of being in the world, that has been segregated due to political and religious suppression of the body." He explained how his Dance-Tech.net makes discussion and media upload easy for its 3,000 members worldwide, clearly finding more latent and actual power in this connectivity than in the fact that little of it occurs face-to-face (or body-to-body).
"Technology obliterates the problem of geography to communication," added Solano. "If you start a conversation with someone at a congress you only attend once a year, you can keep that conversation going." Similar points had been raised earlier by Elam, while elaborating on how Misnomer "shares stories with audiences when they're not in the theater." To the point, he noted, "If you go on a date with someone only once every 12 months, that relationship is not going to go anywhere." Using a projector, Elam was walking us through the soon-to-be-launched Audience Engagement Platform (AEP), a profile-based site built to facilitate audience engagement and bring fans on as "co-producers and partners" of the work through modules allowing them to do everything from vote on candidate costume designs to show their "total impact" on a favorite company in hours volunteered, funds raised, or tickets purchased. "Most of the things that drive us as artists are invisible to audiences," Elam said, "but there's power in the theater when an audience member feels a bond with the work, and AEP is a way to continue that relationship after the performance is over." With a market that adopted Constant Contact en masse, but has long felt its limitations and is wary of inducing fatigue, AEP's potential connected quickly, especially once Elam closed on AEP's foundation support, corresponding learning community, and variety of engagement strategies.
"Technology is significant to my work. And it isn't." Rhoads offered no sweeping statements about whether we are on the cusp of an Internet-driven renaissance in concert dance's cultural viability, or doomed to watch it be pushed ever further into irrelevance by the data deluge of Web 2.X. Her cautious optimism struck a chord: Dance, after all, will always be best experienced live; technology is only an ally to the cause to the extent that it can be used to convince people to support dance by attending shows. StealThisDance.com, a web presence corollary to Lucky Plush's 2009 evening-length Punk Yankees, was overviewed as Rhoads remembered how it was born and how it's been used by the public. "There's an entire generation that feels entitled to whatever it sees on the Internet," said Rhoads. "I'm a believer in fair use but, the thing that's different in dance is, there hasn't been a lot of discourse about ownership." Yankees, which premiered last fall, looked directly at the unique way the larger conversation about appropriation plays out in a choreographic context. As she remembered of its process,
Learning [dance] from video is painstaking and, to just go from what you see on screen without the director there to explain their intent, brought up a whole slew of other questions. Everything is mediated by the body--nothing is going to be a perfect sample....I was struck by how little myself and the dancers knew about our own personal lineages, where this movement stuff that comes out of us actually comes from. It's become a mission of mine to understand how to locate ourselves in this web of past experiences.
Silberstein showed a beautiful moment from HMS Media's 2009 documentary about River North Chicago Dance Company, Every Dancer Has a Story. Dancer Jessica Wolfrum is choked up as she gives a touching explanation of how she knows when her expression in movement has been received; it was an excellent example of Silberstein's mantra of "knowing when not to get in the way." His and HMS's appreciation for simplicity extends beyond the screen's bezel as well; he shares with Rhoads the need to keep technology a well-directed supporting player. "What can you do with [technology]," he asked, "and when should you lay off it?"
Conversation sparked by McNeal's and audience questions ranged from quality control in the face of an explosion in content to packaging off-stage work to be supportive of, and accurate to, the live experience. The consensus of the evening was not so much that technology is changing the shape of dance itself, but that it could help push it closer to the cultural mainstream through innovative marketing and development. Mingling and musing continued for a good while afterward in the Studio Theater, and at a reception up Michigan Avenue at the Hard Rock Hotel's Base Bar.