Project This!   

 

Robert Wechsler's
Palindrome Dance Company

Jenseits der Schatten (2006)

and,

ICE-9 (2003).

"We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed...
Michel Foucault

Well... yes, but is this what we want?  As a dancer I am not so sure.

There is something tenuous about dance, like it is and has always been poised on a precipice, ready to fall, to die. I know its just a feeling, but when 8000 people go to the movies for every one that sees dance(1), well, what does that say about us and our future? Dancing is a precarious business.

Of course, when we are involved in a production, when we are actually _doing_ the dancing, we don't think about these things. Movement begets movement and this wonderful rich fact overshadows all concerns of societal norms or popular taste.

We dancers never were anyway never much for existential questions. Fuck it!  Back to work!  Actions speak and the work itself is our rationalization for doing it.  This is a Cunningham-ian approach and yet I know that I am not alone when I say that I also have my doubts. It is as if we can not quite trust that it will still be there in the morning; that our instincts and creative impulses will continue to flow. It really doesn't take much to kill this art form. Take, for example, the video projector...

We've used them, my company and I, since they first came out. I remember we rented one in 1995 that was as big as a small car. It had three cannon-like lenses and cost 4,500 deutschmarks -- to rent!  Now the same power fits in a purse and every theater has a few hanging around.  The last opera we made used seven of them.(2)

The thing is, I had this epiphany. About a month ago I was in a train crossing the dry fields of central Spain. I had missed the inter-city, and was stuck in a ten-hour local. It rocked from side to side and as the sun slowly set I watched the landscape change color and hue. Suddenly it hit me. It seemed so obvious that I couldn't understand why I hadn't thought of it before. Video projections do not work with dance.

They may not always destroy the piece, but the dance -- the movement, that thing that the dancers do with their bodies -- takes a hit. Sometimes it is obliterated sometimes not, but it always takes a hit.

Of course, this isn't rocket science. Everyone who has ever seen or attempted to create these combinations of movies (3) and live dance, theater or music has noticed how distracting they are. "Distracting" is the word you hear, though this really doesn't do justice to the injury.

Something happens to us at the movies. We don't see them, we enter them. Ruth Prangen, in her presentations on theater stage design, calls it "self-annihilation".(4) We lose connection to those around us, the usher, the popcorn, our physical selves -- all vanish in that flickering light. Curious is only that we find this so enjoyable.

The explanation seems to lie in our nature. Do you have a television? Do you watch it? I did, and I did. The only way not to -- for me -- was to put it in the attic (which, by the way, I highly recommend). Movies (and their modern extensions, television, video games, youtube, etc.) are penetrant and alluring to a bewildering degree. They are far more popular than dance, theater and music combined.(5)

Why?

Vision is not what our eyes see, not by a long shot. Rather it is a complex collaboration of eyeball and brain. Huge amounts of the brain are dedicated to vision. The primary visual cortex, also called area V1, is the brain's largest area and one of over two dozen regions dedicated to vision (6). Region V1 serves many important functions. Among them, it relays the information to the higher cortical areas -- V2, visual area V3, Visual area V4, visual area MT (sometimes called V5) and visual area DP (7) essentially "deciding" what we are going see, and not see.

To make a long story short, we see only a part of what is there.  We may think we are seeing everything equally, but we are not. We see somethings, and don't see others. For example we see movement, particularly animal movement and most particularly human animal movement. (There is actually a whole field of science devoted to motion perception (8)). The brain even goes so far as to "plug in" movement features that are not physically there. In the end, movement is more a state of mind than a sensory input.

Motion pictures of course, don't move; they rely on the effect known as "persistence of vision". This occurs when a series of similar images is displayed, each image lasting a fraction of a second. Simple mechanical devices using persistence of vision were known to the Chinese as early as the second century before Christ and the effect was certainly known to the ancient Romans (it was described in 65 BC by the poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus). The thaumatrope, daedalum, phenakistascope, phenakistoscope (also called the fantascope), zoetrope and zoogyroscope all preceded Muybridge and the invention of film movies(9).

All these "fantascopes" apparently trigger something quite primal in our motion-hungry brains. They make us smile, laugh and cry. They can turn us on sexually or make us sick to our stomachs. We know they aren't real -- but somehow they are. Artists and people at the forefront of technology have been making movies for a long time and to great effect.

So don't misunderstand me: I love movies. It is their combination with dance that worries me.

We at Palindrome used to say, "whether they compliment or disturb the dance depends on how they are used". This makes sense, right? And after all, why shouldn't performing artists use every medium at their disposal to move their audiences?

 


 

 

In workshops we used to teach strategies to connect the movie to the live event:

1. make the image smaller
2. make the image less bright, or convert it to black and white
3. lower the resolution of the film, pixilate it or use various image abstraction methods
4. choose non-human material -- human images and faces distract most of all
5. turn off the sound track
6. put the screen up high, down low, in the back, or use thin, semi-transparent screens
7. project on the side walls, on the floor or ceiling
8. project on the bodies of the performers

and, the methods championed by my company between 1999 and 2005:

9. have the projection incorporate the performer's live image, and
10. put the image under the control of the of the performer's movement (ie. make it interactive)

But here is the salient point:  all of these methods are actually compromises. excuses. cop outs. The movie still distracts and the dance takes a hit.

So what? Why not smiply compromise a little? Put a little "movie" into the mix if it helps sell tickets...

Over my dead dancing ass.  You want to see my new list?

1. turn off the projector.

 

In "What the Body does not Remember", Wim Vandekeybus, after many years of mixing movies with dance, "solved" the problem by separating the two -- first came the movie, then the dance.

But I remember thinking, "nice film, nice dance, but remind me again, where's the connection?"  We recognized that some of the players in the film were also in the dance, but, for me at least, an intuitive connection was patently absent. My tendency today is to think that this is pretty much always the case.  It has to be!  This contradiction or dichotomy is fundamental to the way humans perceive movies vs. live events.

Perhaps it concerns two versus three dimensional perception? Perhaps the brain has one pathway for "reality" and another for "illusion"? Are we hardwired in a way that makes the two mutually exclusive? (one would sort of hope so). And, all things being equal, is there some physiological reason we prefer the latter?

Perhaps a neurobiologist out there could help me here... I just know that when I think over the hundreds of attempts I have seen (including the dozen or so of my own), I am left with this conclusion.

 

20.feb.08

 


Notes:

(1) see (5) below.
(2) In 2006, I directed the opera "Jenseits der Schatten" (produced by the opera of the city of Bonn, Germany). There are some video clips at our web site: Palindrome Inter media Performance Group at (http://www.palindrome.de, go to "videos", then 2006, and finally "Jenseits...")
(3) I'm using the word to include a lot of things that have picked up other names along the way -- virtual this, digital that; augmented this, realtime that. While I'm sure those terms have meanings, for my purposes, and for simplicity's sake, in this letter they are all of them "movies" -- moving pictures.
(4) Ruth Prangen is Atelier-4d (http://www.atelier-4d.de).
(5) The market research organization NPD Group (http://www.npd.com) reported that in 2007 video games sales neared 18 billion. In the same year the film industry grossed 50 billion. Then add in the movies of network television, cable television, DVDs, internet and ancillary markets -- annual total: 100 billion? Half a trillion? Who knows? Who cares!? In all events the dance "industry", I'm sure you'll agree, is hardly a speck on the radar.
(6) Scientific American (http://science-community.sciam.com/)
(7) wikipedia: "visual perception".
(8) http://www.psych.ualberta.ca
/~iwinship/vision/index.html
(9) http://www.moah.org/exhibits/archives/
movies/technology_development.html
(10) I'm thinking here particularly of technology-supported (including interactive) music, text (spoken live and played back over loud speaker), stage design (architecture), color, costume, lighting, computer-assisted (including algorithmic) choreography and composition. This is what comes to mind.  I will write another essay on this...
All web sites accessed 2.2.08.

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