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Company without space, company in between spaces

Visiting UK writer, Sophie Hansen, responds to new media performances by Melbourne’s Company in Space

UK writer Sophie Hansen has returned to London to work at The Place Theatre after several months in Melbourne. She is interested in dance and new technologies and would like to hear from those involved in this area with a view to future research. [email protected] or c/o Bi Ma Dance Company, The Place Theatre, 17 Dukes Rd, London WC1H 9AB. Sophie will report on developments in dance in the UK and Europe in future editions of RealTime.

Hellen Sky in Escape Velocity Hellen Sky in Escape Velocity
Escape velocity is the speed at which one body overcomes the gravitational pull of another body. This metaphor of the gathering of momentum and release from constraints seems an appropriate way to describe the creative processes which this year led to two new performance projects by Company in Space. Escape Velocity, a dance installation for Melbourne’s Green Mill 97 festival in June and Digital Dancing, a residency at The Choreographic Centre in Canberra, were linked by an imaginative energy far stronger than the gravitational pull of practicalities. The successful risk-taking of the first project provided the impetus which enabled the following residency to fulfil its promise of innovation.

Escape Velocity was an example of faith over adversity. Determined to take part in Green Mill, yet too late to apply for funding for the exploration of ideas which had only emerged during the previous production, The Pool is Damned, which took place in March, the company was starting from scratch. When the Victorian College of the Arts agreed to donate their Hybrid Room to the company for the duration of the dance festival, they provided the space in which the ideas of company co-artistic directors, Hellen Sky and John McCormick, could form. The Hybrid Room, a small empty space without any history as a performance venue, offered the bare walls against which the artists could bounce their laser beams and bodies. The reality of a physical context for their ideas released the energy required to spark the creative process into life. Energy which was gradually dissipated by a fruitless search for sponsorship in kind for the expensive technologies on the shopping list, but energy enough to carry through the conversion of the room to a black box, the construction and installation of the technologies, some speedy made-on-the-body-whilst-avoiding-cabling choreography and some hurried match-making between the two elements. With time and resources at a premium however, the dress rehearsal came only on the opening night, the installation never fully received the focus it required, and the experimentation with the interactive potential of the work occurred during each performance.

Inspired by Mark Dery’s book of the same name, Escape Velocity sought to examine the role of the body in the virtual world. As technology revolutionises our public, private and interstitial spaces (such as the internet), shrinking the globe, compressing time and expanding horizons, the reach of an arm, the length of a stride is distorted and confused. There’s no need for a nod and a wink by e-mail, we can’t embrace by video conference and our eyes won’t ever meet across a crowded chat room. So where does flesh and fragile bone fit into the new geographies of the late 20th century? Has technology accelerated us free of each other’s orbits, into a solitary virtual world where our bodies are an irrelevance, a hindrance?

Escape Velocity posed these questions in an other-worldly space without temporal, geographic or political context. Was this the mythical cyberspace? Probably not, there were too many bodies around. The intention, stated clearly in the program (a new step in the direction of accessibility for this company), was to construct a layered, responsive environment where the bodies of the audience would enter into relationships with the space, each other, a dancer and a series of aural and visual effects. By creating an immersive interactive environment, Sky and McCormick were seeking a physical and emotional, as well as a cerebral, response to their ideas. Introducing effects singly and cumulatively would allow the audience to absorb the many technologies in operation (something which The Pool is Damned, with its inscrutable complexity failed to do). Certainly the laser beams which criss-crossed the space and were broken by the bodies of the entering audience did evidently trigger a variety of sound effects. Questioning voices ricocheted around the bodies, quoting from texts such as Dery’s, in a Babel of languages suggestive of entire continents and cultures. Over the sounds came images, similarly triggered; projections of moving bodies, filtered through animation and special effects packages to create visions of other-worldly hybrid beings. Suspended overhead, the body of Sky was filmed and projected around the space as she danced her aspiration to flight, her will to escape. As she fell to earth and carved a powerful path through the crowd to perform her final shamanistic dance, she incrementally reasserted her physicality, gathering weight and volume with every step, every fling of her arm through a wall of light. Moving below the ‘vortex’ of laser lights and overhead cameras which responded to her spinning limbs with sound and images, Sky took control of her environment and lead the technology into a beautiful synthesis with her movement. As the lights came up and she stood, small and sweaty in a sea of cold cabling, her kinetic transformation of the space remained on the retina for an instant, an after-image, testimony to the power of the body in these new relationships.

The end of Escape Velocity was the starting point for Digital Dancing, the residency at Canberra’s Choreographic Centre. Australia Council funding earmarked specifically for initiatives involving dance and new technologies provided a well-resourced space, three dancers and the ability to involve a previous collaborator, the composer Garth Paine, in five weeks of creative discovery. Sky was able to step back from performing and choreograph with dancers Louise Taube, and Joey and Cazerine Barry. Clare Dyson joined the project’s technical team. Taking many of the themes and technological devices of the previous work at a more measured pace facilitated a thorough, measured approach. The ‘vortex’ for example, which Sky so gamely manipulated in her improvised ritualistic dancing, was adapted through repeated rehearsals with the dancers to achieve its broadest choreographic range. Experimentation and analysis found a complex, balanced relationship between cause and effect, forming an environment which both drove and was driven by the dancer. The audience could see that physical activity triggered responses in the visual and aural environment, yet the evolution of the movement was complex and resistant to the reductive equations which typify much interactive work (such as the point and click world of the CD-ROM). The final performance which emerged through the weeks of testing was more a series of vignettes, demonstrations of prototypes, rather than a single cohesive show. The company was able to take several of their ideas to a logical conclusion, using trained bodies, before a live audience given the rare opportunity of experiencing the results of informed experimentation with dance and technology.

While The Choreographic Centre plans to continue its support of such new media work, the company returns to the struggle for resources sufficient to match their ideas. An interactive television project taking place in Victorian schools and on the internet in late 1997, and the possible tour of a reworked version of The Pool is Damned in early 1998, should provide the fuel to maintain the velocity achieved during these two successful projects. A new large scale work involving a range of artists is planned for next year, potentially accelerating the company, free once again of the pull of compromise and limited ambition.

However, without a permanent physical space in which to make and test its performance ideas, Company in Space will forever remain ironically virtual—Company without Space, Company in between Spaces. Whilst the commitment to new technologies often leads Sky and McCormick into the cyber-world of the ether, their passion is fed by the body, and without somewhere to put those limbs, lungs and larynxes, they will always be hamstrung by the physical imperative. Since the company’s inception in 1992, the work has steadily increased in scale and ambition, with each successive project forging a new understanding of the performance potential of the interactive technologies emerging through progressive commercial and industrial initiatives. And yet, as with every new discovery, adaptations and modifications are required before a perfect model is formed. It is this space for experimentation which escapes the company and many like them. The wonder of technology is its ability to transform the known world, its capacity to transcend the imagination and redefine perception. Only through immediate experience does one fully grasp the power of technology, only through protracted exposure does one start to push the technology forward and through the processes for which it was commercially designed. The creative mind can see potential far beyond the intent of the manufacturer or industrial user, can question, re-formulate and re-apply technologies with implications which consequently feed back into the industry. But nobody wants to pay for these rather unquantifiable processes and so artists like Sky and McCormick will still be making lasers in their lounge room, buying PCs from The Trading Post and wiring up the standard lamp for the foreseeable future. Escape velocity, not easily achieved, is all too quickly lost again. Sad, but virtually true.

UK writer Sophie Hansen has returned to London to work at The Place Theatre after several months in Melbourne. She is interested in dance and new technologies and would like to hear from those involved in this area with a view to future research. [email protected] or c/o Bi Ma Dance Company, The Place Theatre, 17 Dukes Rd, London WC1H 9AB. Sophie will report on developments in dance in the UK and Europe in future editions of RealTime.

RealTime issue #22 Dec-Jan 1997 pg. 32

© Sophie Hansen; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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