ballet in cyberspace
Tue, 20 May 1997 22:15:28 -0400 (EDT)

Hello all,

This is my first post so I hope that it gets through ok.

I have been following the list with great interest although often feeling
out of my depth. However the recent postings about ballet encourage me to
join the debate as a ballet choreographer. Eighteen months ago I was on the
1995 Digital Dancing course at Dance Umbrella in London, initially as an
observer, but becoming more involved and finally making a couple of studies
in collaboration with a digital artist Tim Diggins. We were primarily
investigating how Lifeforms functioned and continued working together after
the course on a project investigating the differences between a live dancer
and a Lifeforms figure. The project has not progressed far for a variety of
reasons; for one, I currently don't have access to a powerful enough
computer to continue exploring Lifeforms in my own time.

However I am also at a stage when I am reassessing the tradition that I come
out of at a time when, at least certainly here in the UK, the future of
ballet looks pretty depressing. The large companies are locked into their
role primarily of providing traditional entertainment; ballet is no longer
as it was earlier this century in the van of artistic innovation (William
Forsythe in Frankfurt excepted). This position is inevitable given not only
the stringency of funding but also the 19th century institutional
hierarchies which operate at all levels of the ballet establishment here.
Ballet institutions are in general out of contact with not only new
technology, but modern culture in general. The training of ballet dancers
has advanced by leaps and bounds in terms of athletic accomplishment but the
education of ballet dancers as creative artists lags far behind, and those
of us that still believe in the fundamental validity of ballet as a form
must shed negative attitudes (our own and those of others) reinforced over
years in order to make fresh work.

Having said all that, I do believe in ballet as a form and remain convinced
that it can be just as much at home in cyberspace as other forms of dance if
not more so. It is a fantastically rich resource of movement which though
starting from a few simple fundamental concepts builds up an expressive
vocabulary of thousands of potential combinations and movements. Our
problem is to see beyond what are 19th century romantic stylistic accretions
and conventions and open up the possibilities for the form to resonate with
contemporary ideas, art, music, media, to be seen and performed in new
settings and contexts. Interaction with new technologies has certainly
suggested new methodologies for exploring my own medium.

One thing we have to remember is that fundamentally ballet is movement.
This may sound obvious but we have begun to think in terms of positions
rather than movements. For example, if you look at the use of ballet
terminology in the average class we have slipped into the incorrect habit of
making everything into a noun, an object, when the French words are mainly
verbal, describing actions: we talk about "a tendu" as though it were a
defined thing rather than a verbal description "stretched" of an action. In
these little ways we propagate misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of
ballet. When Sylvie Guillem performs a developpˇ to the side, we are
dazzled by the extraordinary extended position that she arrives at rather
than engaged by the action of unfolding the leg which brings it about.
Perhaps the importance of still photography in capturing and preserving
ballet is in part to blame for our current static self image, and certainly
this fixation with positions would provide one reason why ballet seems to be
so difficult adequately to capture on film or video - we are just not
looking at the right thing.

This is a problem which I have with Lifeforms which operates fundamentally
on a position to position basis. Recording/constructing/conveying balletic
movement with it is incredibly laborious and I suspect(I haven't had enough
time with the software to really pursue this) ultimately unsatisfactory,
because quality of movement is not built in as an option. The concept of
transfer of weight so central to most of balletic vocabulary is similarly
complicated to convey since the figure has no weight to transfer. As it
stands at the moment it is not therefore an efficient tool for choreographic
creation using balletic movement. (Interestingly the nearest that it gets
to conveying something balletic to me is when the figure is reduced to the
most diagrammatic style of a few straight lines.) Obviously there are all
sorts of other things it can do for which the average ballet dancer is not
an efficient tool...

I would like to know if there are other kinds of software for creating dance
movement which perhaps are more abstracted and less tied to an anatomical
image of the human body. Ballet is a technique of opposites and extremes
and apparent paradoxes; it can transcend the human body to express perfect
abstractions, or equally use abstracted movement to express emotion and
human drama. The great danger at the moment is becoming obsessed with the
physical and anatomical appearance of the technique rather than the
essential qualities of the movement.

Some of us are trying to encourage debate about the future of ballet and
recognition of balletic activity within the independent sector (where one
has the freedom to be experimental but not the resources). If this is of
interest to anyone do check out the BIG page (still very small...):

What Nik says about the computer illiteracy of dancers rings oh so true...
Not really surprising as one's usual working environment is a large empty
space not a computer terminal.