Dance has been through a rapid evolution over the last century, from neo-classical, to modern, to post-modern. In the last few decades it carved new identities through crossbreeding; from dance-theater, to multi-media performance, to dance on film. Now it's expanding into the public realm -- reframing without a pedestal, merging with architecture, identifying new places for the body to interact with our immediate cultural context, redefining and identifying itself as a visual art form.*
In as much as it is an art of moving bodies, dance is largely transmitted through the sense of sight. I can still hear Pearl Lang -- who carried on Martha Graham's mission -- shouting in a composition class: "Dance is a visual art!" By that she meant that the audience has to be able to see the emotions and lines expressed by the body.
The senses are usually listed as touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. Dance, however, challenges this lineup with kinesthesia, a sixth sense of motion. Sight and hearing have secondary roles to play. While one could argue that a music concert is also a visual experience and that theater and dance also engage with the sense of hearing, what distinguishes dance from the other disciplines is movement of the body, which is a physical experience, and in visual terms is actually three-dimensional (or four-dimensional with the addition of time). Dance as we know it today, is usually presented in a two-dimensional environment and treated as a purely visual experience for the audience, (also often accompanied by music). In perfect stillness, one sits in a dark theater and watches dancers, like a beautiful moving painting. How much of the true essence of dance is lost in transmission here? Are we missing the dance part of the dance by going to see it? What if you went to a music concert and the volume was totally off? Would you experience the music?
Psychologists maintain that, while viewing dance, the brain sends the body all the physical signals to achieve the movements you are seeing, so as to understand them kinesthetically. While seated, your body reproduces the dance in a series of muscle activations and miniature moves invisible to the eye.
What if we used a different method of transmission to present dance to the public and introduced dance as something to experience physically and three-dimensionally? It poses the obvious question: What about this performance would still be aesthetically relevant to the dance form and address the highly developed craft and virtuosic abilities of masters? Not everyone is a trained and experienced dancer or desires to invest the time into becoming one. However, the number of flash mobs bursting out in public spaces (and YouTube) everyday, the new TV show "A Chance to Dance," and the millions of fans' copycat music videos available online, show an widespread interest in non-dancers putting in the effort to learn a dance. But a new kind of dance "to do" may not have to be about virtuosity.
The Internet has given us the ability to become interactive in so many ways, like broadcasting ourselves, or mass communicating with our friends. As Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase "the medium is the message"** predicted, the new medium that is the Internet, has affected the way we want to experience the world. As a result, experiential and interactive are the new trends, we crave doing things as opposed to just passively receiving information and stimulations. We receive more and more information, in shorter and shorter sequences, with more and more ability to respond instantly.
If dance could be transmitted as a physical experience, by being transmitted to the audience through the kinesthetic sense as opposed to the visual sense, not only would it mean that the audience would be dancing, but it would also mean that the audience would become the artwork itself, which collapses the audience and the medium (dance) into one. The audience becomes both the emitter and the receiver. By transmitting the content of the work to the audience, as if projecting a film onto the audience's body, we also transform the audience's body into the media. The audience's body has the choreography stored inside it, waiting for activation and playback. All of which brings me to start to imagine the possibility of mass duplication of a live form without recording it, by transmitting from body to body or by mass distribution via instructions.
Performance art has a long history of treating the body as both medium and art object. Relegating the live arts to real time and space is a limitation that impacts both performance art (a form of visual art) and the performing arts (live music, dance and theater). Forms that both suffer the economic consequences of being a unique iteration in a world of mass production. But these forms are also in contrast to the technological times we live in, the ultimate metaphorical expression of what all of our bodies (and therefore our existence as human beings) are bound to: time and space. And they celebrate both our ephemeral existence and the opportunity to gather with each other in real time and space in the occasion of an event. Performance art is by definition a live event, but an audience needs not to be present, media as a witness is just as valid, and documentation is often interchangeable with the event itself and suffice to inscribe the event in history, which is usually recorded on a media that can be duplicated, survive and be retransmitted in place of the event. Dance is a live art form that has no specific means of recording, no official notation system*** and no meaningful mass production outlet. Dance on film will never be as kinesthetic as the real thing and the documentation of dance is usually significantly altering or unjust to the dance event itself. Dance is not only a kinesthetic art form it is also a deeply and inherently live form.
The industrial revolution gave birth to mass production, the ability to make thousands of copies of a prototype. Music, film and photography are examples of art forms that could be mass-produced. With "bodies as media", we might begin to explore the mass production of a kinesthetic art form. Each person receives a copy of the choreography and in order to experience it, one has to do it. Just like a video game, in order to enjoy it, one has to play it. Not unlike sex, which ensures the passing on of DNA codes to a new generation, the pleasure is in the transmission.
Whether this is a viable concept economically for the future of dance is left to be seen. Like anything else it depends greatly on the context in which it is presented. When one wears a T-shirt that says Nike on it, the body becomes a medium of transmission, or even advertising real estate. Yet Nike does not pay the consumer to wear the T-shirt. The consumer pays. Because Nike is able to seduce people into believing that association with their brand will make a person cool, by wearing the shirt, one actually contributes to spreading the Nike brand virus, a process that may be worth more than the shirt itself. Marketing is not the only industry that spreads in this viral fashion. Ideas, values and trends get disseminated virally through culture, history, education, word of mouth etc.
Viral transmission is a powerful, perhaps even an essential, attribute of culture. The context for a transmission can easily make something completely unacceptable normal, and something completely unexpected possible. It is critical, therefore, to address the entire social-environmental context in which dance is conducted. I believe making dance a physical experience for the audience without compromising form is possible. And I believe that it is a cultural territory that has only just begun to be explored. As so many people become increasingly paralyzed in front of their digital screens, both large and small, the world is desperately in need of a deeply participatory dance form, one in which the physical experience of the body is paramount, ecstatic and contagious.
"Choreography for Audience - Take One" is a work that will be performed by a participating audience using algorithmic instructions to generate patterns in a bird's eye view will explore these ideas.
"Choreography for Audience - Take One" is on Saturday, September 15, 2012, at Irondale Theater in Brooklyn, New York. Tickets are available here.
*(See Claudia La Rocco's "Museum shows with moving parts" New York Times)
** Wikipedia: The meaning of "the medium is the message" a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself**.
*** The Laban notation is considered the most official dance notation system and several other dance notations exist, including ones that are personal to individual choreographers. However nothing that comes close to music's notation system exists for dance.