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Vol. 6, No. 1: June 15, 2000

Technology and Dance bring New Avenues for Artistic Discovery

by Professor Joan Karlen
Department of Theatre and Dance, UW-Stevens Point

Photo of Joan Karlen
Prof. Joan Karlen (Photo by Brock Wojtaliewicz)

Are dance and technology really an unlikely pair? Knowing that uninitiated viewers find dance less accessible than other art forms -- questioning their ability to find meaning in what they see -- I wonder if, in our current digital culture, technology has the potential to make dance and choreography more accessible to a broader audience. Not only is digitized dance portable, it preserves the art form. But beyond these practicalities, I am interested in finding the ways that movement and imagery allow discovery and touch upon our human experience. For me, technology expands this possibility.

My interest in multimedia and technology began in 1993 with the video documentary I directed and edited at New York University in Dr. Ken Phillips' graduate seminar called "The Psychology of Creativity." As my final project I chose to videotape interviews with choreographers and visual artists about their creative processes. I began by paging through my address book, listing colleagues and friends working in these fields, then narrowing the list to ten. Only after the project was underway did I realize that what seemed a logical listing of available acquaintances turned out to be a group of people key to my development. I could chart threads of my aesthetic and artistic development through the woman who hired me for my first professional teaching job in New York, the director of a dance company I’d performed with, and a married painter-and-photographer couple who featured their personal relationship as artistic subject matter.

The element of chance in taking this elective course, choosing the interview participants, and being willing to create in a new medium are aspects of work that I continue to welcome. It felt natural to design interview questions and learn character-generator, toaster-titling, and linear-editing techniques. I learned that I dont have to know everything up front and that remaining open will allow me to learn as I proceed. I learned not to be intimidated by what I don’t know.

Partly due to my success working with documentary video, I wanted to learn about the possibilities of combining video with dance. During summer 1996 I attended the video production course at NYUs Tisch Film School. My broad purpose was to learn new ways of seeing. The course dealt with hands-on field and TV studio camera work, editing, and viewing the weekly projects of my nineteen classmates.

From Professor Donna Cameron's commentary I learned to see each director's style, aesthetic choices, and recurring themes -- and became aware of my own. I also learned to see frame composition in a new way. Initially I thought of the video frame like the proscenium opening of a stage. The limitation in this way of seeing was that, in my mind's eye, I was always sitting in the same seat in the audience, requiring my imaginary eye to travel to what took place on stage. I came to realize that altering the cameras point of view allowed me and the viewer to enter the personal space between the camera and the subject. I think of this as being much like an actor who draws the audience into the performance not by projecting out, but by focusing in. Considering the cameras proximity to the body became a theme in my work, including extreme close-ups that transform the body into a landscape, integrating camera movement with human movement by handing the camera to a moving dancer, and layering and blending close-up and long-shot images.

During the Tisch film course I had my first non-linear editing experience using Adobe Premiere software. While experimenting with Premiere’s compression process, several frames were dropped from my footage. The resulting images included unexpected pauses and many "in-between" movement moments. Whereas my background in classical dance and composition featured completed movements and extended, balanced lines, the pauses created by chance during digital compression were moments I found far more personal. These paused images reminded me of walking past an open doorway and glimpsing someone in the middle of an action, unaware of anyone else's presence. I like seeing images of dancing that look less planned and more natural -- dancing that appears as though no one is watching. This experimental footage became Beach Dance. I began to experiment with ways to include this candid quality in all of my work.

Working in Macromedia Director taught me to see and work with a nonlinear, multi-layered compositional frame. From 1996-98, in four multimedia and dance preservation workshops sponsored by The Ohio State University Department of Dance, I learned Director, Adobe Premiere, and Adobe PhotoShop software programs and created an interactive CD-ROM project, Joan Karlen, Choreographer.

A still from the CD-ROM showing the work "Beach Dance"

Karlen's interactive CD-ROM allows viewers to play video clips of her dances and read about the choreographic process

This CD-ROM project started out as primarily educational, something I planned to use in teaching. The format featured descriptive text with photos and small video clips. Necessarily, my initial focus was on learning the technology, and the learning curve was stimulating. As I continued working on this project over the next two years and became more comfortable with the technology, I also became aware of how the choices I made relative to image placement and frame composition impacted the content. In other words, I came to a point in which I was comfortable enough with the technology to start thinking aesthetically. This was a great day. I started trusting that in many instances an image can convey as much or more meaning than text, and that text may better serve the image from a hidden or partially hidden layer. Color, key to the design of my live work, could be included on the screen as a filter, text color, or ground.

In Falling Awake, the 1999 digital work I choreographed with Macromedia Poser 3.0, I experimented with computer-generated images of falling figures and flying staircases. The Poser figures could do movement I imaged that the physical body cannot, endlessly repeating sequences and never tiring. Working on this project I entered an anti-gravitational reality very similar to a dream state. Though the Poser figures are not human, in them I began to see human qualities and emotions -- introspection, inquiry, shyness -- represented in each head tilt and torso shaping. In Poser I created several short movement phrases, imported them into Adobe Premiere, and arranged or composed them as I might with live dancers in the studio. When the movement was nearly finished, musical composer Eugene Beer watched my work on a computer screen. He asked me two basic and important questions: what did these images mean to me, and what sounds did I hear accompanying them? Through my answers about transcending gravity, the freedom of flight, and entering uncertain territory, I realized that I had unwittingly recreated portions of recurring childhood dreams. It was through the process of watching the work and explaining it to Eugene that I also become aware of a deeper theme of personal loss.

Photo of the stage work  called "To Get to the Other Side"
The 1999 stage work To Get to the Other Side includes falling dancers inspired by Karlen's earlier experiments with Macromedia Poser

The aesthetic discoveries I make while working with technology influence the development of my live work. My 1999 stage work To Get to the Other Side is a direct response to wanting to see more of the flying and falling figures created with Poser. For this choreography I added a scaffolding stage set that allowed dancers to enter from above the audience’s sight line, which I now saw as similar to the top of a computer screen. The padded orchestra pit allowed me to choreograph dancers careening through space off the edge of the stage and disappearing from sight. In Light Wait (1997) I combined live performance with projected video sequences that had been taped in the TV studio, then edited to be a close-up, synchronous layer of the overall work. This process taught me the need for adequate resources, particularly a willing technological team. In Walking Along I Looked Up (2000) I integrated a portable fabric arc that, when moved and manipulated, enabled the dancers to appear and disappear. Lighting and the arc’s location transformed the proportions of the framed composition.

In creating dance for the stage I am interested in finding ways to expand and extend the existing space, and going beyond well-constructed patterns of specific steps to the interaction between dancers. In my work with technology I am interested in the impact of altered time and locale and the juxtapositoin of layered imagery. I have become comfortable with chance and discovery. I trust that by staying tuned in to the creative process, the overall form and content will become apparent.

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