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Dance and Digital/Virtual Technologies, by Jaana Parviainen

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Dwelling in the virtual sonic environment: Phenomenological analysis of dancers’ learning processes in working with the EGM interface by Jaana Parviainen

We must admit that the sound, of itself, prompts rather a grasping movement, and visual perception the act of pointing. (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 131)

This article discusses some findings in the context of the EGM (Embodied Generative Music) project held at the Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics IEM in Austria. In investigating a new interface that combines motion capture and sound processing software with movement improvisation and performance, my focus is on dancers’ learning processes of dwelling in the virtual sonic environment. Applying phenomenology and its concepts, I shall describe how dancers explore reversibility between sound and movement to shape this connection in an artistically expressive manner. The article proposes that dancers build bodily knowledge both of the sonic environment and of their own passive and active, intuitive and deliberated movement choices. While dwelling in a digital environment changes dancers’ habitual manners of behaving, it opens up to them new kinds of kinaesthetic opportunities of intimacy and pleasure in motion. Findings from this research are presented that reveal the importance of bodily interaction with virtual environments when developing new movement based interfaces.


Dance practice

Dance practice requires the cofunctioning of motor and sensory modalities, particularly kinaesthesia, proprioception, tactility and body memory. Dancers’ movements interact with the organic and inorganic, the material and immaterial environment like codancers, the elasticity of the floor, music, dance themes, the audience and the moral codes of society. They also traverse boundaries to rub against the physical environment or aesthetic expectations of an audience. The new interfaces of interactive technology change these boundaries and spatial realities (Birringer 2008). It requires that dancers adopt new knowledge and skills to work with new interfaces.

The digital technology has already altered the artistic practices of contemporary dance during the last two decades. Choreographers have made dances on screens, and live performances have included projections of screen images. In the 1970s and 1980s choreographers, dancers and dance teachers began to use VHS videos as a vital means to document and promote dancers’ work. Dance training often involves the study of taped choreographies as a learning tool and visual support for the memorization of movement phrases or choreographic patterns (Birringer 2008).

In the mid-1990s, when dance motiontracking systems were relatively new, performers learned how to ‘play’ the motiontracking instrument (Dixon 2007, 205). Over the years, a genuinely sensitive and sophisticated interactive paradigm has gradually replaced previously rough and reactive ones. Today, there is a much more advanced approach to the dialogue and interaction between dancers and digital systems (deLahunta 2007; Wijnans 2008). Since digital technologies have become more common, more sophisticated relationships and interactivity between technology and dance have developed. Exploring these interactions, it is no longer appropriate to analyse how technologies function but how moving bodies respond actively and passively to these new immaterial boundaries and how dancers perceive and feel this interactivity.

In this article I shall discuss a new interface that combines motion capture and sound processed software with movement improvisation. The designers of this EGM interface are Gerhard Eckel, Deniz Peters and David Pirrò at the Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics (IEM) at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz (KUG), Austria. I collaborated with this team and guest dancers to analyse the dancers’ improvisation and their learning processes for two and a half months in 2009, spending approximately one day per week in the lab. I worked with four dancer choreographers  from Vienna Tanzquartier: Anna Nowak, Alexander Gottfarb, Alexander Deutinger and Magdalena Chowaniec. In addition to the aesthetic lab work, I have used previous recordings of the dancers’ improvisations in my analysis.

My purpose here is to discuss some findings of dancers’ learning processes of working with the EGM interface. I will analyse here in more detail Alexander Deutinger’s  five minute improvisation in the virtual environment and a five day collaboration with Anna Nowak when she was working on her performance Alice in Wonderland. The reason to choose these two cases is that through Deutinger’s improvisation I can zoom in on the micro level of working with the interface, while Nowak’s case opens up the macro level of this working. My hypothesis here is that dancers need to bracket their everyday expectation of the movement sound relation to learn to dwell in the virtual environment and to use the interface for their own artistic expression. However, I assume that they also restore their previous experience and knowledge, in particular the methods of building bodily knowledge in dance practice.

I will pose here questions like: How will the body’s intuitive and habitual movement patterns be modified by the digital systems? On what ground do dancers choose or reject certain movement sound combinations? How does knowing or not knowing of the technical system affect dancers’ interactivity with the interface? How does the virtual environment overwhelm dancers? What kind of strategies do dancers possess to control and take power over the interface?

My article has the following structure: first, I shall explain some technical details of the EGM interface. In defining the standpoint from which I view the interface, I introduce my methodological and phenomenological approach to examine the dancers’ work. Then, I will seek to specify how the EGM interface creates the virtual environment from the phenomenological perspective with the help of Merleau-Ponty’s concepts lived space and reversibility. To understand dwelling in the EGM environment, I will turn to discuss dancers’ improvisations as exploration. Introducing the central concepts, bodily knowledge and categorising movements, that assist my interpreting of the dancers’ improvisations, I want to argue that the dancers’ exploring includes systematic observation that does not sever with vivid artistic expressivity. The rest of the article will be devoted to elaborating on Alexander Deutinger’s and Anna Nowak’s improvisations. I want to address how they move back and forth between the known and the unknown to learn to dwell in the virtual environment.

One of the key concepts here is dwelling or indwelling. For Heidegger (1962), dwelling involves a staying with things which are bodily ready to hand. Dwelling means to reside, to be content or at home within a place (Heidegger 1975; Urry 2007, 31). Instead of a static position, the form of dwelling involves moving with things. Polanyi sees the connection between his theory of tacit knowing and Heidegger’s notion of dwelling. Polanyi (1964, ii) suggests that only by indwelling we can know objects and other people and this indwelling reciprocally modifies our way of being. While dwelling in a digital environment changes our habitual manners of behaving, it opens up to us a new kind of intimacy and pleasure in motion.


Birringer, Johannes. 2008. Performance, technology and science. Paj: New York.

deLahunta, Scott. 2007. Sharing descriptions of movement. International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 3(1): 316.

Dixon, Steve. 2007. Digital performance. Cambridge: MIT.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and time. Oxford: Blackwell. (Sein und Zeit, 1927).

Heidegger, Martin. 1975. Building Dwelling Thinking. In Poetry language thought, translation with Introduction by Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, Publisher.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. The phenomenology of perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge. (Phénoménologie de la perception, 1945).

Polanyi, Michael. 1964. Personal knowledge: Towards a postcritical philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Urry, John. 2007. Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wijnans, Stan. 2008. Sound skeleton: Interactive transformation of improvised dance movements into a spatial sonic disembodiment. International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, 4(1): 2744.



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